I don’t enter my work in many contests because those fees add up quickly. However, I realized my very short novel Alice had never been entered anywhere, so I put it into two categories in Writer’s Digest 25th Annual Self-Published Novel Awards. I think of it as a fun story, so I put it into mainstream fiction, but one of the customer reviews on Amazon calls it a “modern day ethics story,” so I also entered it in the inspirational category.
It did not win in either category, but I requested feedback from the judges involved and it arrived today. They each give a numerical score of 0-5 in five areas: Structure, Organization, and Pacing; Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar; Production Quality and Cover Design; Plot and Story Appeal; Character Appeal and Development; and Voice and Writing Style. They also provided a brief written commentary.
I opened the email with the mainstream category judge’s commentary first. My best numerical score was for Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar, and that was a four. Plot and Story Appeal got a two. The rest were twos and threes. The commentary was negative all the way – I definitely will not be sharing any part of it.
Then I opened the email with the inspirational category judge’s commentary. Everything got five’s – a perfect score – and the commentary ended with “one of the most interesting and useful novels I’ve seen.” I immediately posted the full commentary in the author comments on the book at Amazon.
Now both of these judges were presumably working with the same instructions for scoring – probably a rubric of some kind. I think the key is in the Plot and Story Appeal. The first judge gave that a two, the second a five. The first probably did not enjoy any of the process and got it done as quickly as possible; the second obviously enjoyed the book thoroughly and may not have looked at the technical aspects as critically as a neutral party. While I like the perfect score, I need to keep that in mind when my head starts swelling.
The bottom line is, no book appeals to every reader, including judges and reviewers, and most contests will have a single person doing the first screening read.
So what should you do when you get a negative review or commentary? Munch on a piece of chocolate and look at the details and decide if any criticism is justified. If you can’t make changes to this book, use the criticism to improve the next. When I entered Michael Dolan McCarthy in the Amazon Breakout Novel Awards, I got a full reading of the manuscript by Publisher’s Weekly and that reviewer pointed out my strengths as a writer and places the novel was weak. I hadn’t published yet, so after the initial cringe, I went back and fixed the problem areas. I quote the positives. Alice is already published, but if I write something similar, I’ll revisit both of these commentaries.
There’s sometimes a delay updating info at Amazon, so here’s the full positive review:
Judge’s Commentary 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards
“ALICE by Sheri McGuinn is a wonderful short novel that’s an easy read. Yet it contains deep threads along with an important mission. Using the power of fiction, the novelist encourages readers to do something for the community — that is, using abandoned buildings to house the homeless. This is a worthy idea that I hope many will be inspired to adopt. Although it’s been awhile since I had major contact with teenagers, I believe the author captures the voice of a thirteen-year-old very well. The narrator has a sense of wisdom, awe, and inexperience that marks many in that age bracket. Baby Girl is a storyteller I enjoyed spending time with, and I think others will, too. The bright yellow book cover captures the attention right away. The flowers are whimsical, and remind me of the hippie era, which is of course ideal for this book. The back cover design is also whimsical, and lets the reader know what to expect. I would have liked to see an author bio here. The resources listed inside, along with promos for the next book and the self-publishing guide are all practical and helpful. Overall, one of the most interesting and useful novels I’ve seen.”