As promised, judge’s comments

January 4, 2008 | Karin's Blog | 5 comments

My judge this last round went beyond the call of duty. And for that I am very thankfull. Thank you Round 12 judge for your time and insight!
So here is what she had to say:

I had a really hard time coming up with five to cull. Even the culled ones are good enough to be published.

To cull five, I had to think beyond what was publishable. Instead, I concentrated on the difficulties of getting published in such a large, glutted market where the writers are getting better and better. Books have to stand out no matter what the genre. Books that would have been published five years ago are being rejected simply because someone else came up with a fresher, more original way of hooking the reader. So I don’t see these five entries as failures—they are not. With a little more work, by digging a little deeper, these writers can make their work stand out. They already have all the tools.

1. During the course of his quest, Dair Curator had lost count of the number of women he’d slept with. He didn’t care if he’d gotten a reputation for being a womanizer. He only cared about correcting his mistake. Angels don’t make mistakes, especially ones that cause the death of a Mortal.
Looking out the apartment window at the red sun slipping beneath the rolling green hills, the twinges of homesickness threatened to grip his body again, like an addict gone too long without a fix. Even now, to ease the sensation of worms slithering all over him, he fought the urge to brush off imaginary creatures and pace. The longing for home a soul sickness, he had to control his body’s yearnings in order to survive in the Mortal World long enough to complete his mission.
“Why don’t ya come back to bed, so we can make it an even six times, Honey?”
He shot a glance at the bottle-dyed blonde who stretched like a contented cat on the queen size bed. Dair knew he’d given Gwendolyn just enough to leave her craving for more, but now the time had come to show her the letter. The letter reminded him he needed to regain control over his body’s wayward symptoms.

My big problem here is emblematic of several entries: it seems familiar, as if I’ve read it before. This is mostly due to stock sentences that are shorthand for emotion or situations we’ve seen and read before. With a little more reaching for words and sentiments that aren’t predictable or clichéd (for instance, “bottle-dyed blonde” and “craving for more”) this would be a much better entry. Even the description didn’t add anything: red sun, green rolling hills. There is nothing to grab the reader’s imagination. I also did not feel an emotional connection to the Angel, and I think the use of language—even though it is perfectly acceptable language—is the reason why.

2. For someone with Kate Atkinson’s unique talent, finding England’s most infamous pirate had been easy. Catching him, however, was proving more challenging as Black Jack Snow darted like a cat between the bawdy houses, alehouses and hovels squatting along the south bank of the Thames.
“Curses,” muttered Aunt Winifred between bosom-heaving breaths, “we lost him.”
Kate could think of more appropriate words than “curses”, most of which she’d overheard earlier while waiting for Snow outside a particularly unsavory tavern, but she refrained from using them in her aunt’s presence. Instead, she rubbed the talisman clenched in her fist. The midnight blue sapphire felt smooth against her thumb and the gold band of the gentleman’s ring grew warm.
In a steady voice, she chanted the words her mother had taught her many years ago before her death.
“Through this ring which I hold,
Through these eyes which I see,
Show me the one I seek,
Show him to me.”
The ring burned, branding her skin, but Kate didn’t let it go. If she did, the connection linking object to owner would be severed and the only chance she had of finding the one man able to help her would be lost.
Like a mist consumed by morning sunshine, the way to Snow suddenly became clear and Kate moved on, signaling her aunt to follow.

-Again, this is perfectly good writing. It is certainly publishable. But there are so many writers who go the extra mile, who really stand out. I’d like to see this writer surprise us. Give us a particular that is not from a stock of the usual props. A sapphire is nice, but it’s been done. And again, there seems to be a lot of shorthand language: “the ring burned, branding her skin; “particularly unsavory tavern”. I know because I’ve probably written those exact words or words like them, when I wrote historical romances years ago. This was a very close call.

3. Remorse, the malicious shit, saddled up and rode Sierra Talbot’s heels like a haunted horse the day she blew back into the heart of Simon, Michigan.
A town she hadn’t seen or lived in for five years.
A town she hadn’t missed.
“Take a left here,” Carrie Swanson said, flapping her hand at an unmarked intersection lined with a decaying array of single-wides. “And then *tell me* I didn’t hear you right.”
“I wish I could,” Sierra said, wishing more with each passing mile this entire episode would turn out to be a bad dream. But the nerve-gnawing reality of her situation slammed into her one vicious pothole at a time as she crawled deeper into Simon’s dejected underbelly.
Sierra Talbot was back and headed for the wrong side of the tracks.
“You’re going to live in your grandfather’s old house?” Carrie said, a healthy dose of cynicism lacing her voice. “And you’re going to run his business?”

This writer really did the stretching I missed in the preceding two entries, and I appreciate that. This writer took risks. There were some vivid descriptions that I really liked “slammed into her one vicious pothole at a time” and “decaying array of single-wides”. I could see the single-wides. The problem here is not originality, but confusing sentences. While I loved slamming into the pothole, the whole sentence did not scan: “But the nerve-gnawing reality of her situation slammed into her one vicious pothole at a time as she crawled deeper into Simon’s dejected underbelly.” This is a case of too much loaded into one sentence. Too many metaphors, touching on too many subjects, all of it written in a confusing manner. I forgot that Simon was not a person, but a town. So watch the confusing sentences, read them aloud to see if they scan and make sense. Ask yourself: what do I really want to convey?

4. Emma Morris looked out the back window of Zelda’s Magical Diner at the rows of tomato plants heavy with the red fruit, and something free and wild inside her unfurled. The lush garden mesmerized her, so different from the hardscrabble Texas ground she’d known until she was fifteen and her parents bundled her off to her aunt Zelda in Wisconsin.
This summer, ten years later, the abundance of plants wasn’t the only attraction. A man hunkered down to pick tomatoes, his back to her, the sun playing shadow and light across his skin. In her mind she pictured his eyes, the rich brown of the earth, gazing into hers as if he saw something precious.
Rubbing her goosebumpy arms, she heard the floor creak behind her and caught the scent of jasmine.
“Don’t you love the way Duncan’s T-shirt clings to him when he sweats?” Ling stopped alongside her and sighed like a sad summer breeze.
Emma froze, unable to answer Ling, unable to tear her gaze from Duncan, her instincts screaming at her to run. She gripped the windowsill, her nails digging into the wood, hanging on until the screams hushed to a whisper.
This was Duncan, she reminded herself, who climbed an apple tree last May to return a fallen baby robin to its nest.

I liked this until the second to last paragraph. It really threw me for a loop. One minute they’re admiring Duncan’s back, and the next, Emma’s instincts are screaming for her to run. Why? It doesn’t make sense, particularly when followed by “This was Duncan”, the guy who took care of the baby robin. It jogged me out of the story, and I no longer understood what this woman was about. I thought I knew who she was, but suddenly, I didn’t. I suspect that this discrepancy is saved by the next sentence or two, but it still rang the wrong bells at the wrong time. It just feels out of order, somehow.

5. It seemed ironic that his own marriage should come undone at a house party whose sole purpose was to celebrate the promise of another.
From where he stood in his friend’s library, Marcus Elliot, the Duke of Westbrook, was able to stare out the library window and at the view beyond. A typical English garden laid spread out before him and, further in the background, the gentle hills tried vainly to beckon his gaze. A sense of lazy peacefulness seemed to permeate the scene, dotted here and there with those energetic few who had managed to leave their beds after last night’s festivities and were now slowly strolling the grounds.
Yet, as he stared so intently out the window and at the picturesque scene before him, Westbrook saw none of it. Not the glimpses of sunlight filtering through the leaves, nor the fluttering of the flower petals as a summer breeze kissed their smoothness. And certainly not the serenity of the couples wondering aimlessly along the many paths, the women of which contently twirling lacy parasols. Rather, the image in his mind’s eye was predominantly that of his wife and the turmoil rolling around in his soul a result of her softly spoken words from the night before.
I love you.
Just thinking about them made the words settle like lead in a gut that had not stopped churning since hearing her speak them.
Damn her, she had no right!

This was another one I had to think about. There’s only a knife’s-edge of difference between these entries and the ones that are still alive. I thought this was more evocative than some others; I liked the garden, and could picture the people wending their way through. But ultimately, it took a while to get going. A little too much peacefulness and not enough tension quickly enough. But this is a judgment call; I might be wrong about this. So I needed more to cull it, and I found it in this sentence “And certainly not the serenity of the couples wondering (wandering) aimlessly along the many paths, the women of which (?) contently (contentedly) twirling lacy parasols. Editors don’t have time to fix things like that, which is reason enough for a rejection in this day of tottering piles of manuscripts and publishers screaming about the bottom line. Publishers are looking for reasons not to buy.



  1. Edie

    Good catch on mine. There is a reason for my character to fear any man, but her reaction was over the top. I’ll tone the paragraph down so it’s not jarring. Thanks for the critique!

    Thanks, Karin, for putting the comments up. You’re the best! 🙂

  2. Diane Della Maggiora

    I found these comments really enlightening. Personally, I wouldn’t have been able to cull five entries, since, oh, about 50 or so.

    I want to add I have learned a lot from this contest, both this year and last. as an entrant, and as a reader.

    This year I took a 4 page prologue and cut it down to 12 lines–ok, maybe a few more given the semi-colons I used. Thing is, I like it better. Now, if I could learn to do that for the whole book– Karin, want to have a whole book contest? 🙂

  3. Brenda

    Thank you so much for this wonderful contest. Please thank the judge ten times for the fantabulous feedback. He/She really made me go one step further in the tightening department. Wow, the writing community is so generous and Karin Tabke is leading the pack!!!!
    Thanks again,

  4. Elisabeth

    Great comments for all of us. Thanks to your judge, Karin (and to you as well).

  5. Judy Sabel Soifer

    I just got home and we have electricity. Yeah! For those of you who don’t live in California, there was a big storm that caused massive power outages in the northern and central parts of the state. So I just read the comments.

    Karin, thank you for this great opportunity. Please thank all of your judges for their time for getting me this far in the contest and the last round judge for her feedback. All of it is much appreciated.

    You’re the best!!!!!!!


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