MUSING: Turning the Tables on Myself: Feedback on "The Winner: A Ballroom Dance Novel"
After completing a blog tour for The Winner: A Ballroom Dance Novel on iRead Book Tours, I thought it would be fruitful — and fun — to turn the tables on myself. In my capacity as a contributor to The Dance Enthusiast, I’m often the one offering critiques. Yet always working from one vantage point of the artistic experience can lead to brittleness, overconfidence, and tunnel vision about what it means to make and show art.
Art is about choices: making them, doubting them, standing behind them, hoping that others will understand them. Putting red paint somewhere means that’s a place you can’t put blue paint. Opt to do this step here or use that word there equals a whole arena of steps or words to which you’ve said no. All art exists in a dual state of what it is and what it is not — an entity of assertion surrounded by declined possibility.
While writing The Winner, I had to make choices, most of which were in regards to the ballroom dance setting and the narration.
To do the world of ballroom dancing and its practitioners justice, I spent time throughout the book, particularly in Act One, elaborating on the studios, the students, the pro/am scene, the professional circuit, social dancing, and, the most important aspect, the dancing, both its quantitative and qualitative aspects. Although I tried to sprinkle it in and tie it to the plot, it still took a lot of words, more than I wanted in some places.
The second big choice centered on having dual narrators who had similar goals, but different stories. Although the plots of Nina and Carly intersect, The Winner is different from a romance novel where she and he relate the same plot (My upcoming novel, The Pas de Deux, does this, and I found it easier than balancing two independent narratives.) This meant I spent Act One introducing most of the major players, developing realistic motivation for their actions, and, hopefully, engaging the reader emotionally in their journey.
So choices. How did they work out for me with this group of superstar readers who have finely honed instincts from consuming and commenting on many books?
Pretty good! I received lots of positive feedback.
“All the characters in the book are very well carved, well described and are kept real, making it easier for the reader to connect,” says Wander Girl Life.
One of the reasons I read is to meet people; thus, having relatable and real characters is a primary focus for me. I’m glad Wander Girl Life felt the same way.
“I learned a lot from this novel--without feeling like the author was presenting a textbook on competitive, ballroom dancing,” says A Mama’s Corner of the World.
Phew! I really wanted the information on ballroom dancing to be presented organically.
“Even if you are not a fan of dance you will still enjoy this book. There is so much more story there than the dance,” says Bookaholic Banter.
I was delighted to hear this from both Bookaholic Banter as well as other readers. Dance is the catalyst that drives the plot and character arcs, but never the sole focus.
“I hope there is a second part to the story,” says Working Mommy Journal.
Me too! Writing The Winner was sheer joy. Although I intended for it to be a standalone novel, I’ve had a number of readers request a sequel. So . . . epic drum roll, please! I’m planning to write a standalone sequel entitled The Champion. I’m in the planning stages, but here’s what I can tell you. It will feature Grace (Carly’s daughter) and Irene (Nina’s daughter) competing in the American Rhythm division. The catch? They’re both dancing with Dima, Oleg’s son, who will ultimately pick one of them to be his partner at Nationals. Grace is a women’s studies major at a hyper liberal college while Irene attends an elite private high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’ve got ideas for plot twists and know my ending image. Some characters from The Winner will be back, plus readers will get introduced to some more lively individuals. I can’t wait to start writing.
I did receive some mildly negative feedback. Since no book is going to please every reader in every way, I look at critiques as, first, a way to verify certain worries I had, and second, to take me deeper into the work of writing fiction.
“I did find the beginning a little slow but was sucked in and couldn’t put it down,” says Leel Loves Books.
I was also concerned the beginning was a little slow. Although I believe there’s plenty of drama (Will Nina and Oleg reconcile? Will Nina get her life back on track? Will Carly and Sam win Rising Star? Will Carly figure out to stay in New York), it’s pretty much all setup for the major storyline that unfolds in Act Two and Three, which anyone who’s read the back matter will be expecting.
Classically speaking, Act One is approximately 10% longer than it should be. Several times before publication I set myself the goal of cutting it by several thousand words. I was never able to get rid of more than a couple hundred, mostly, because I felt I would lose more than I would gain, namely character development and insight into the world of competitive ballroom dancing.
I’m glad that, ultimately, Leel Loves Books got sucked in. My hope is that knowing the characters and understanding the world make for a page-turner.
“The book is a little longer than usual but it doesn’t feel dragged,” says Wander Girl Life.
This is true! The Winner is around ninety-five thousand words. While this is significantly shorter than, say, most of the Harry Potter books, it’s on the longer side for commercial fiction, which normally runs around eighty-thousand words. A lot of this has to do with having dual narrators whose overlapping arcs must be independently resolved.
I’m relieved to hear it doesn’t drag. I tried to create a twisty plot filled with plenty of fascinating characters, but still, I myself have declined to read books that push much past three-hundred pages because I’m worried they’ll drag.
“Initially, I felt that Carly's character was not going to pull me into the novel. She was presented as a temporary, intro-level-dance teacher who seemed to have fallen into the instructor position simply because she danced as a child and made it through a quick training. Then, really a little too suddenly, she was moving toward being a competitive, ballroom dancer heading toward a national championship. Where were those years and years of training, practice and coaching?” says A Mama’s Corner of the World.
I agree! Carly’s development is on the fast side for ballroom dancing, a point I address in the fact-versus-fiction section at the end. I chose to have a newer dancer face off with a more established one for contrast as well as to tap into the archetypes that populate real and fictional narratives about sporting events.
I appreciate this generous assessment from A Mama’s Corner of the World. “This required me to step back for a bit--and put some of my own experiences into perspective. (1) Experienced teachers see talent within...The studio owner saw natural talent within Carly. (2) Carly was a strong, hardworking, young woman with a lot of heart...and those things are vital to a competitive dancer.”
“I would have liked to see the dancing scenes a bit more detailed,” says Bookaholic Banter.
Me too! I wanted to write more about the dancing but was warned against it by my beta readers as they agreed that they were at the max of what they could handle dance-wise. BOO!
The ending of The Winner is where I received most of my critiques. When readers issue similar opinions, I listen.
“The story definitely did not go as I wished or thought, but overall, I found it to be an enjoyable read,” says Leel Loves Books.
I was always writing to a final image that I wanted to leave the reader with. How much a reader likes it may depend on which character he or she was rooting for, Carly or Nina, and how much he or she liked Trey Devereux.
“I really enjoyed The Winner although, for me, the ending slightly let it down because it covered a period of years in a few chapters and I missed the intensity of earlier in the book,” says What Cathy Read Next.
“The ending was very surprising and moved quickly through time seeming a little disjointed with the rest of the book,” says 100 Pages A Day.
They are correct: At the end, The Winner does cover several years in about 10,000 words. A few months after Nationals, Nina and Carly reconnect and clarify a few things. Then, the story moves ahead three years where the two couples complete their romantic arcs. Then, the last chapter takes place at Nationals where the reader gets a snapshot of where everyone is in their life.
Here, the story question (Who wins Nationals?) didn’t neatly line up with character arcs. In general, this may be a quirk of mine because something similar happens in The Pas de Deux where the bulk of the story happens in a compressed timeframe. Then, it skips ahead a couple of years before ending even further in the future with a final image.
Why do I write like this? After a long, hard think about it, I determined that, in these instances, the big climax incites change in the character rather than fulfills it. When it’s finally established, exactly, who is the winner of The Winner, Nina and Carly still haven’t processed their actions and been changed by them. Hence, the curtain rises several years later to allow the reader to see Nina and Carly going through their new lives as their new selves. The final scene at Nationals may be just as much for the reader as it is for me. I care about my characters, and I want to present enough information about them so the reader and I can envision their future — a sort of the-kids-are-alright moment.
Thus, the intensity does fade at the end. It’s like a roller coaster where the car glides into the station after the big hill.
Overall, I had a terrific experience, and it was a treat to share my work with such enthusiastic readers. If you’d like to see if you agree or disagree with these bloggers thoughts, please feel free to pick up a copy of The Winner.