Playing it Safe

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not making things harder for myself. I’m thinking this after reviewing some feedback for a contest I entered a while back. It was my chess playing hero’s story and he didn’t do all that well in the contest. Why? Because one judge HATED the story. Now, most of the other judges really liked it. They scored me really well. But this one, particular person just did not like it at all. In fact, the only thing that would have made this story better for them would be if I had never written it at all. Same with my other entry – which actually did really well but only just missed a final placing. One judge did NOT like Presents. They did NOT like alpha males. And they stated it in the feedback sheet and scored me accordingly.

So now I’m wondering if entering my writing into contests is really a good idea. I knew my chess hero wouldn’t get anywhere because he’s a very polarising hero. He’s damaged and hard and screwed up. He’s a love him or hate him kind of guy and sure enough one judge loved him and one judge hated him. Perhaps if I’d played it safe and softened him up, he would have done better in the contest. Perhaps that’s what I should be doing with all my stories.

This is why I’m wondering if I’m making it harder for myself. Because I don’t like safe, tried and true conflicts. I like difficult, dark conflicts. I like flawed characters. Because they’re interesting and when they overcome their difficulties, the emotional pay off is that much more intense. But it IS hard to pull off and some readers just don’t like reading that kind of stuff.

It’s a conundrum. My chess player was, I think, the first character I’ve written that truly came alive to me in my head. Who made me see that my characters in previous stories were amalgams of forced together traits and conflicts, like a badly put together mosaic. But he came together really organically, as a whole person, and just leapt off the page at me. I never had to question what he would do at a particular moment in the story because I always knew, because I knew HIM as a person. He has a special place in my heart for precisely that reason and when I write now, I remember how his character came together and if I’m not feeling that way about the characters I’m currently writing then I know I have to stop and think about them some more. I must admit though that when I wrote it, I did wonder if I should pull back on him. But then to do so would have been to make him someone he wasn’t and I couldn’t do that.

So I guess that’s my conundrum, do I play it safe with the tried and true and make it easy for myself? Or do I keep writing about the characters and conflicts that interest me and perhaps make that publication goal harder? What would you do?

14 thoughts on “Playing it Safe”

  1. Hi Jackie

    I don’t like competitions because it’s sooooo subjective. You can have someone who loves your entry or not. If they don’t, they really shouldn’t mark you down but it seems you have.

    I see this similiar to readers and books. When you’re published, some readers will love your books and others won’t, that’s how it is.

    Personally, I think a writer should everything they can to the story and their characters. That’s what readers (me?) want!

    You love your chess alpha hero and this will come across in your writing. I think this is really important.

    If you don’t like what you write why should your reader?

    Go with your passion. Go with what you love.

    Don’t play it safe is my advice.

    Good luck with your writing, you are a good writer and I know it’s only time before you are pubbed 🙂

  2. I struggle with this same question: how far can I stray from the tried&true before I’ve gone too far for category romance? Do I write the way I want to write, or do I write inside the lines for the small HMB/HQN target?

    My first sub got a full request, and it’s the only one I tried desperately to keep inside the lines. After that, I heeded the BE ORIGINAL cries, my enjoyment of the process soared, but none of those stories have garnered the necessary notice. Readers? Oh, yea, lots of awesome feedback from the readers. Editors? Not so much(or no feedback at all yet). So I wonder if maybe HMB is not the target for me afterall, and I’m finally /okay/ with looking elsewhere — and not as a step on the way to the goal.

    In order to write, I have to be excited about what I’m writing. If I’m not, I don’t write. If you’re drawn to the darker conflicts, I think it would be unsatisfying(not easier on you) to try and shoehorn your muse into light-hearted ‘save our neighborhood park’ stories.

    I don’t have any answers yet, but you’re not alone in the question. Maybe we’re just not category girls?

  3. Joanne – that’s awesome advice! I guess when you’re published, if readers don’t like what you’ve written than all you’ve lost are sales. With a contest, you lose your chance to get seen with an editor which is more frustrating.

    Anyway, I think you’re totally right. If you don’t like what you’re writing, what’s the point?

    And thanks for the faith. Right back at ya!

    Amalie – ‘save our neighbourhood park’ Lol!! It’s a funny thing. My first and only full request was one I wrote without really knowing anything about category. Since then, all the stuff I’ve written trying to replicate that hasn’t worked. Except for last year when I threw all my light and fluffy stuff out of the window and tried a different line with a darker edge and that resulted in a contest win and a partial request. Still no word on that one but it was a sign that perhaps I’m not totally off-track.

    But who knows? I too have had great reader feedback but not editor attention. I do know that I really like the limited focus of category (only on the h&h) and I like the emphasis on internal conflict which I find easier than external. Also that the guidelines help give me a structure. But I guess that’s something only the editors can decide.

    Let me know when you figure out the answer eh? 😉

  4. Hi Jackie!
    I had a similar experience with a contest lately too. 2 judges really liked it-and 2 hated my heroine. I was surprised-of all the things to comment on, I didn’t expect them to hate her. But the contests are subjective and I tried to get what I could from the comments, but really, I liked my heroine, my agent liked her…so oh well. Am I going to change writing strong, witty females b/c of 2 judges from a contest-no! I like tortured characters too-people who’ve had to overcome obstacles. If you can’t write what you love, then you won’t continue to write!
    It’s hard enough to keep motivated in the face of long wait times and rejections-I can’t imagine how it would feel if you didn’t even feel like you were writing about characters you loved 🙂

  5. Personally, Jackie, I question why a judge who hates Presents was reading your story in the first place. It was bound to rub them the wrong way regardless of whether the story was brilliant (which I’m certain yours is) or not! I say, chuck this one up to bad luck, and whatever you do, don’t pull back!

  6. Contest are really eye opening. Most everyone I know has at least one entry that got wildly divergent scores. Which just goes to prove that much of it comes down to luck — will you be lucky enough to get judges who can embrace your story? If you don’t, that’s okay too. Sometimes even the harshest critics can teach us something.

  7. Victoria – That’s so true! I couldn’t even take any useful feedback away from this particular judge because there was clearly NOTHING I could do with the story to improve it for them. So yeah, I’m afraid I’m going to continue writing characters that some people might hate because as you say, what’s the point otherwise??

    Maya – yeah, well, I wondered that too. I guess they have to find judges from somewhere and the judges were reading entries from the whole of the category genre. They must have known they’d get some Presents! Ah well, I don’t mind them not liking it, what I do mind is losing points because of someone’s personal preferences. But I guess that’s the way of it.

    Julia – To be honest, I couldn’t take away anything from this judge. I already know some people don’t like my writing and I already knew that the hero would be problematic. But then, at least it prompted a strong reaction. That’s better than ‘meh’ I guess eh?

  8. Jackie

    I think the thing to take from the contest is that most of the judges did like it (apart from one who couldn’t like it – in fact given you are targeting it at presents it would be more worrying if she had liked it given her personal preferences!)

    Therefore there is every chance that if you submit this through normal channels it will get a positive result. Hey I love the chessman and I haven’t even read any of it!

    The other thing you said that rang a bell with me is the idea of trying to recapture your first submission. I tried that for ages and I’m much happier (though adnittedly no more successful!) now I’ve stopped doing that because I was so busy looking back and thinking what if/ if only that I lost my voice completely because I was trying to copy it (I really hope this makes any sort of sense!)

    Anyway it sounds to me that you are letting your voice shine through again and if its at a different pitch tahn it was a few years ago thats because you’ve been training it to be even better.

    Will stop now as have run out of breath!!

    Nina xx

  9. Nina – awww thank you. I’m actually not sure the chessman would get anywhere to be honest. There are aspects of him that are different to a normal Presents and plus…not sure I pulled off the heroine well enough.
    Anyway, yeah, I think you’re right. I have been looking back at the one sub and trying to replicate it. But I never will because I’ve actually moved on from it and, quite frankly, the things I’m writing these days are better. Though given the lack of movement on the publication front, you’d never know! 🙂

  10. Ah, Jackie, contests are great, when they work for you. When they don’t, they can be disasterous for an aspiring authors motivation.

    If you’re entering contests for feedback, I always advise to ditch that idea and get a cp, or pay for a professional manuscript assessment. If you’re entering for the chance to get on an editor/agent’s desk, target the contests where the final judge is aquiring, or can aquire, for the line you’re targeting.

    A few years ago I won a contest. The following year I entered the same contest and one judge panned my entry so much I came fourth from the bottom in the scoring grid. The book that won was just released, the book that got panned is coming out in November. It’s often a matter of luck and timing as well as having written a good book.

    So, forget the judges bias. And write what feels right for you. Trust your instincts. Love your characters.

    And keep writing!

  11. Hi, Jax,

    You’ve had some great advice here. I don’t do competitions, but I can understand the desire to enter.

    I think you should stay true to yourself, and write about the characters and conflicts that interest you. Your way of telling stories will attract an editor sooner or later, and you’ll be glad you honoured your creativity.

    Don’t doubt your talent, or your voice, or anything else. You owe it to yourself to be Jackie Ashenden!

    Hugs,

    Monique

    Author of Humorous, Feel-Good Romance–Now With Added Sizzle!

  12. Helen – yes, I’m pretty much entering contests for a chance on the eds desk and I only target the ones with the eds I’m hoping to make contact with. I guess if I was being totally logical about it, I’d only enter mss that I thought judges would go easier on. But then that’s so subjective isn’t it?
    I think you’re right, the thing to do IS keep writing regardless. 🙂

    Monique – hi you! And that’s fabulous advice! Being myself. I think I’m going to write that somewhere and pin it to my monitor… Hugs back.

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