Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Judging Writing Contests

This topic is near and dear to my heart for a number of reasons. Good or bad, writing contests are opportunities for both the writers who submit contest entries and those who judge. Of course, one must never judge a contest category one has entered--at least if both activities occur within the same contest, but this goes without saying.

Anyway, I'm a contest slut. That's right, I'll go with any contest who'll have me, although my sluttiness is about to be cut short if-and-when I finally get my contract from Cerridwen Press. But I'm actually entering contests right up until the time I sign that contract. And I'm judging contests, other contests (not the ones I'm entering).

Why Judge a Writing Contest?
Because you will learn more about what works and what doesn't work by judging other writers' work, than you ever will just staring at your own work (or work already published). We can never recognize our own faults, but it is sure easy to recognize other folks' faults. And once you realize what doesn't work elsewhere, you have to go back and be brutally honest with your own writing and see if you are doing the same thing.

Caveat: If you feel your writing is so good that you just don't have any of the flaws you see in other people's writing, then don't even bother to be a judge. You won't be a good judge and you won't benefit from judging. Good judges always learn from the experience, just like good teachers learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. The very act of teaching forces you to learn just like the very act of judging forces you to learn. Take advantage of it.

Here are the steps to getting the most out of judging and coincidentally being a good judge.

  • You can't take points off if you cannot articulate what the problem is. Nope, sorry, I don't care if the story was the worst thing you've ever read in your life. You can't take points off if you can't say why it was the worst thing you ever read. And I mean specifics. Is the character flat? Why? Not enough description? Too much description? Did the dialog not go with the character as described? What was wrong? This will help you, as a writer, identify problems well enough to be able to find and correct them in your own work, and it will help the contest entry writer to fix what is wrong. They paid good money for the contest in the hopes they could fast track to some editor or agent who is judging the contest finalists, but if they don't get to the final round, they deserve to know exactly why.
  • Give them a solution to the problem(s). You can, of course, offer nothing but criticism, but you are shortchanging both the writer and yourself. While it is highly doubtful that the writer will implement any solution you recommend, it may spark an "A-HA!" moment for them, or at the very least serve as a starting gun to get them moving. For you as a judge, this is an opportunity for you to think of ways to fix a flaw. Sooner or later, you're going to be on the receiving end of a revision letter, so the more your flex your revision muscles, the stronger they will be when you have to row the same leaky boat. It may also help to make your criticism seem less negative and harsh, and more inspirational. Well, maybe not - I don't know of any criticisms that don't seem negative and harsh, but at least you will have tried and the writer will know you have tried.
  • You'll realize why editors and agents only have to read the first few lines. This isn't really so helpful for the recipient of your criticism, but after judging a few contests, you will begin to realize why agents and editors can tell so quickly if a specific manuscript is going to be worth their time or not. I know this sounds discouraging, but it is so true. It is also a mostly qualitative property that is excrutiatingly hard to identify. Mostly, I think of it in terms of writing maturity. Works that are published, and manuscripts which are publishable seem...mature. The writing is more polished, the characters seem more real, the descriptions mesh well with the story and the dialogue is true. It's smooth. You actually have a hard time pulling yourself far enough out of the story to actually DO any criticism. Each time you read a word, a phrase, a sentence, you sink back into the characters and situation and become unaware of the writing. Unfortunately, 90% of what you see in contests just isn't mature. It doesn't pull you into the story. You are always aware of the writing as opposed to sinking into the story. The characters seem silly and childish, like plastic Barbie and Ken dolls, and the writing constantly jars you out of the story. The hard part is, once you begin to recognize this, you get really, really paranoid about your own work and your ability to write smoothly and NOT lose your reader at the first sentence. There's nothing I can do about paranoia, I'm afraid.
  • Don't take off points for problems with facts. Point them out to the writer, but be aware that you may be the one who is wrong--not the writer. Or you may both be wrong. Most writers do at least some research. If you think the facts are wrong, just make note of it on the entry and indicate you think it is wrong, and leave it at that. Most contests do not even give points for factual exactitude--this is fiction, after all, so for God's sake, don't take off points in some random place just because it makes you feel vindicated. Some historical categories do have maybe one judging area for historical accuracy, and this is where you can, maybe take off 1 or 2 points, but as I said, you'd better be absolutely, positively sure. I've seen judges indicate that the War of 1812 never happened and that the writer shouldn't "make up wars like this". I've had judges tell me Apollo was the Greek Sun God, when in actual fact it was Helios (and Apollo just got mixed up with Helios later). So like I said, you might indicate you think something is wrong, but I, personally, wouldn't take off points unless it is something like a story taking place in 1804 and the characters are constantly saying things like: "Okay, dude, catch you later!" or "Can you just fast-forward that and get to the relevant point?"

That's it for being a judge. I'd say to be nice about your criticism, but I'm assuming you're making an honest attempt to be a good judge and not just make snide remarks at the expense of the writer because it makes you feel good to show how much smarter you are and how irritated you are with stupid writers.

Why Enter A Writing Contest?

After reading the above, you are probably thinking contests are just way too hard on the ego and way too subjective to enter. Except they are learning opportunities. Or publishing opportunities.

  • You may actually have a publishable entry. Yes, it does happen. In every category of a contest, SOMEONE (usually three someones) has an entry that finals. And some agent or editor will read it. And often, that agent or editor will request the full manuscript! I would note, however, that more often than not, requests for fulls seem to come from editors at the huge conglomerate known as Harlequin. Just a note.
  • You may need help. Wouldn't you rather find out about your flaws BEFORE it goes to an agent or editor and gets rejected? Sometimes, even with critique partners, some flaws creep through. I can't tell you how many really stupid mistakes I've made that I didn't see until a judge pointed them out to me. (See the Apollo/Helios item above? Well, that came about because I stupidly put in that Mercury was the Sun God, which was NEVER the case but I had a brain fart and it slipped by BOTH me and my critique partner and it took a contest judge to point it out to me. And thank GOD they did before I sent the manuscript to anyone important and looked like a total idiot. Of course, the judge also got it wrong, but we were both wrong in this case.) I've also had cases where I thought it a scene or situation was perfectly reasonable and clear, only to find that anyone else reading it would think something entirely different. That happens to me a lot with characters I think are being funny and others think are just mean. I guess I'm weird.
  • You will become the QUEEN (or KING) of Ruthlessness. If you enter enough contests, you will figure out that your entry must CONFORM. You will discover how to format it properly and make sure your hero and heroine meet within the first couple of chapters, preferrably as early as possible. Maybe even on page 1. You will cut chapters 1-3 just so they DO meet within the first few pages (and you'll find out that, hey, maybe that really is a better place to start). You will learn to create chemistry between your characters. This last point is a sore one with me because I prefer subtle/realistic chemistry, while most romance contests will require a somewhat over-the-top throbbing body parts kind of chemistry, but here's the thing... If your writing is mature enough, then they will forget they like "lurid" and they will think you are doing it beautifully even when it's really subtle. And that is all it takes. You need to be ruthless with your writing if you are ever going to publish. It is what will let you delete that wonderful, but utterly pointless scene/phrase/dialog that needs to be deleted even though you think it is the best piece of writing you have ever done. If it doesn't advance the plot, reveal the character, or otherwise work for the story, it has to go. If you pay attention and go through the rigors of contests, you will learn this (or just not final). It can be a hard and harsh lesson, but if you are determined to publish, this is one way to hone your skills. In fact, I was never very good at editing until I started really "polishing" stuff for contests and I wanted something which in the original draft was 75 pages fit the 50 page entry limit. You'd be amazed at how much crap can creep into your writing. Even good crap is still crap and it has to go. Hone your skills.

So, that is really the long and short of contests.


Lynne Simpson said...

This article belongs in RWA chapter newsletters. I wish more judges and entrants would read this!

Anonymous said...

I am fourteen years old and know nothing of writing contests, but I have just entereda low-scale one and feel as if your entry has helped me in a sense. It didn't apply to me because I don't write fiction, but you have some interesting points and I especially love what you had to say about paranoia in the third bullet. It was a nicely informative read...I only wish my opinion was valid being at such a young age. :-)

Amy said...

A comment from a 14-year old person is just as valid as a comment from a 90-year old person! :-) I'm glad to hear it was helpful. I certainly hope you do well in the contest you enter and continue with the writing! Remember that Eradorn was written by a 15-year old -- and Georgette Heyer started writing her wonderful Regency novels at 16 - so age isn't important.
Good luck and Happy Holidays!