Phoning it in, Writer’s Digest Edition

Writer’s Digest has a contest for self-published eBook authors. I entered it late last year, and they finally got back to me with feedback. At first I was like
But then they sent their response. Let’s unpack their critique a bit. The tl;dr version is

The scale is 1 = “needs improvement” and 5 = “outstanding”.
Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 2
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 2
Production Quality and Cover Design: 2
Plot and Story Appeal: 3
Character Appeal and Development: 3
Voice and Writing Style: 2
Yes, Alan, something seems amiss. And now for the judge’s commentary:

In The Dragonslayers by Matthew Maynard we are presented with a story that is a taut suspenseful [comma error, sic] tale that sks [sic] us to reconsider some of the things we know about right and wrong, about what it really means to be lawless and lawful at the same time.

A nice start, despite the punctuation and spelling errors. Misses some of the point, but hits most of it.

The title seems to this reader to be a little misleading, giving a kind of false sense of the tropes of a fantasy genre book.

The first real hint that all is not right. Even if the title suggested fantasy, neither the new cover nor the old one suggest a fantasy genre. Neither did the category entered in the contest, nor the categories listed at Amazon, nor any bit of marketing copy I’ve written for the book. Does Judge #41 understand the concept of a metaphor? Also, is the judge saying they want the book to be a tropey fantasy novel, because of the title?

The overall design of the book is appealing though the cover image for the book is a little too underdeveloped and simplistic for the really important themes that are addressed throughout.

Yes, I know. Point taken, cover revised – but only after I had submitted my contest entry. Oh well.

The writing is suspenseful – not just in terms of plot revelations but also in terms of how the narrative develops from page to page. There are some grammar problems here and even if these are minor, they can really destroy a reader’s confidence in the story they are reading.

My first reaction when I read that was
I’d say more, but that was my second and third and twentieth reaction as well. I checked with my editors too, and they all seemed to say the same thing. Also, the lack of error citations (even one would be enough to satisfy me – seriously guys, put in some effort) and your own grammar errors in the review make me wonder – did you read the book? Seriously, did Judge #41 actually read the book, or just skim it?
Citation Needed

But, more importantly, we find ourselves reading closely to pick up on all the nuance and detail that Maynard weaves in.

Good. A well written story should make you pay attention. This isn’t the sort of book you pick up for a beach read, I expect you to think when you read my book. If thinking is beyond your capacity of work for this assignment, I’ve got some bad news for you, Judge #41. Having to read closely is not a detraction.

Page 208 gives some of the signature writing I love here – “Today was a very good day for William Cavanaugh.”

Really? Really?
You think I’m not going to pick up on you just making stuff up to get your grading done by the deadline your contest manager set for you? First off, that quote is in the book, but not on page 208, or section 208 in the Kindle version (which is the version I sent them). It’s location 2787, which my Kindle puts at page 168. Which makes me wonder (again) if you even read the book or are just pulling quotes from random places to make it look like you are. But even when college freshmen do that, they tend to at least get the page numbers right.

That kind of confidence and scene setting is infectious and really helps the reader to know what is going on in the minds of the characters as well as the life of the novel.

Again with the WTF incredulity. You felt that the nine words you quoted conveyed confidence, set a good scene, and helped the reader see what’s going on in the minds of the characters? I can do all that in just nine words? Hell, Hemingway wasn’t that efficient.
Let me help you out a bit: I’m not as good as Hemingway, nor do I expect to be for my first book. So let’s look at a different excerpt and see if it does the same:

[Dr. Romano] fixed his gaze with coldness and snarled, “You underestimate the amount of pain an oncologist has to deal with, sir.” She bit the last word off and rose from her seat across from him, closing to within inches of his face. “I’ve seen children die because they couldn’t get the treatment they needed because somebody couldn’t afford it and someone else wouldn’t pay for it. I’ve had to comfort even those who could afford the godforsaken poison I prescribe because it couldn’t help their child or their spouse or their parent. I’ve seen a colleague spend fifteen years in this field helping children slay their dragons, then end it all with a bullet to his head when he learned his own diagnosis. Believe me, Colonel,” again the snarl stabbed at him, “I’ve seen more in my twenty years of medicine than you’ve seen in your – what, two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan? Three? And I see it daily, but there’s no PTSD program for me.”

I’ll let you be the judge. Feedback from readers who have actually cracked the spine tends to be much more rewarding on a personal level. As for the judges, well, Morgan Freeman said it best.