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Sunday, March 8th 2009

9:51 AM

Confessions of a Contest Judge - Part 1

  • Mood: Oh, so productive.

Hello, my name is Toni, and I’m a recovering contest diva!

Note:  The following is from an article I intend to submit to several magazines. By committing to publishing it on my blog, I am giving myself an additional incentive to actually finish the &^%$ thing.  If I go too many days in a row without a new installment, I encourage you to send me emails, complaining that I am a lazy cow.  It will be good for me.

I HAVE completed (and presented) the actual workshop.  I’ll be presenting it again at the NECRWA conference on March 28 and Connecticut Fiction Fest on May 2.

Confessions of a Contest Judge: The Five Most Common Problems Found in Beginning Writers’ Submissions and How to Fix Them.

Part 1: Introduction

When I first decided to become a writer, I had a few problems.  First, I had yet to complete the first sentence of my first book.  Second, other than a handshake or two at book signings, I’d never even met a published author.  Third, I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry or how it worked.  All I had was a story idea, which I thought was probably a romance. 

So I went to Borders Books and bought Writing the Romance Novel for Dummies by Leslie Wainger.  In addition to invaluable information about writing, it contained a couple of pieces of advice that had a huge impact on me.  The first was a suggestion that I join Romance Writers of America, an organization without which I would not be writing professionally today.  Then, on page 253, I read the following statement:  “Writing contests...have become an increasingly popular way for aspiring writers to get their work in front of an editor.”

Aha!  I Googled “Writing Contest” and found dozens, if not hundreds, of contests.  And I entered them all, stretching category and genre boundaries beyond all reason.  If the rules didn’t forbid it, I entered my novel in two or three categories.  I spent thousands on paper, binder clips, printer ink, postage and entry fees.   And, later, thank you notes.

When the entries started coming back to me, scored and marked up by faceless judges, I was eager to see their comments.  I was, frankly, expecting praise--my business writing was legendary and had gotten me attention and promotion at my corporate job.

What I got, instead, was criticism.  “POV!”  read one comment, oft repeated.  “Character voice inconsistent,” another.  And, my personal favorite, “Show, don’t tell.”  Every once in a while, a judge would suggest how to fix the problem instead of just pointing it out.  Surrounded as I was by stacks of returned entries, I was grateful for those who took the time to do this.  I knew what I had to work on, and took steps to improve my problem areas. 

By the time I made my first sale (to an editor who’d read the manuscript in a contest) I figured I’d accumulated a huge karmic debt.  So, when an organization asks me to judge a contest, I usually say yes.   And, remembering the invaluable help those early comments were to me, I make an effort to do a thorough job and give a lot of feedback.

Not long ago, it happened that I ended up judging three contests with deadlines on the same day.  Two of the organizations had a shortage of judges, so I was given over thirty entries to complete in thirty days.  The length of the entries ranged from twenty-five to thirty pages.  I read—and scored—over 850 pages in a single month. 

I soon discovered that all of the entries had the same five issues.  Some had only one or two, and some all five—but there wasn’t really a sixth issue.  (I’m talking about writing technique, not story construction.  Without synopses, which none of the contests required, I couldn’t assess much about plotting, pacing or character development.)

The first issue is something I think of as “writing mechanics.”  This was the least common problem and, in the more polished entries, was virtually nonexistent.  I’m referring to things like overuse of adjectives and adverbs, repeated words and phrases (starting five sentences in the same paragraph with “she,” for example), misuse of words, and even basic errors with grammar, spelling and punctuation. I believe that most writers can identify and fix these errors themselves or with the help of a critique partner.  In my workshop on the same topic as this article, I just pass out a list of things to watch out for and move on.

The second issue was clichés.  All the heroes were tall, dark haired with piercing blue eyes.  When the hero and heroine first touched, they all got a sensation related to electricity, ranging from a mild tingle to an electric shock.  Everyone had a soap opera name—no one is named Bob, Mary or John in romance.  Again, I think that a good critique partner will nail you on this stuff. 

The remaining three issues are the main focus of my workshop and of this article.  They are:

     1.  Point of View

     2.  Character Voice

     3.  Showing vs. Telling

Sound familiar?

Editors and agents reading this, I can hear you thinking, “You left out information dumps.” Yes, I know that beginners’ submissions are absolutely fraught with back story, long descriptions, and detailed explanations of how the character arrived at a particular predicament.  I submit to you that information dumping is a point of view problem.  As we address the core problem, the secondary issue will go away as well.

Next installment:  It’s All About Perception—What is Point of View and How Does it Drive a Story?

49 replies.

Posted by Miguel de Luis:

I write (most of) my fiction in Spanish, and I find that there are differences on the mistakes judges see in English.
It's curious how important the POV is becoming there. And, sometimes, I get to think there's a sect sworn in to exterminate all adverbs, specially those which bravely end with a ly.:)
Sunday, March 8th 2009 @ 11:08 AM

Posted by Pamela L.:

A "cliched" description can cause a ms. to be rejected? Okay, it's official. From now on all my male heroes will have dark violet (or other variations on purple) eyes and blue hair. Just don't ask me where they got the hair coloring from.
Sunday, March 8th 2009 @ 12:33 PM

Posted by Karen:

I'll start the nagging now. With our contest judging about to begin, and having volunteered to judge for the first time, I appreciate any insight you have.
Sunday, March 8th 2009 @ 9:45 PM

Posted by Deanna:

Thank you for the insights. Breathlessly awaiting part 2.
Monday, March 9th 2009 @ 11:41 AM

Posted by Jody:

Males can only be blonde, brunette or red haired. Eye color is limited, too. So wetend to pick our favorite and go with it. I doubt the reader would enjoy a hero with mousey brown hair, kind of thin on top, with baggy, sad eyes. LOL Are you suggesting we limit the physical description (or at least tone it down) and find other ways to describe our hunks? Any examples that might work and still stimulate the reader?
Tuesday, March 10th 2009 @ 10:34 AM

Posted by Kathy:

Toni, I discovered the RWA while researching. It paid off I entered a contest in 207 and recieved decent feedback. Then I joined an online chapter,began taking classes reading other writer's information blogs and articles. Soon 2008 rolled around with the deadline for another shot at the same contest. I chose it because of low funds and being a member of my chapter gave me lower entry fee costs. I polishe dup my ten pages and wrestled wqith the ugly synopsis bear until I managed to pull together a decent entry, I had hopes for more positive or not so positive feedback. What I got was a phone call notifying me I was in the finals. Well that was interesting. Still I had my doubts it meant much. Then I received another phone call. Out of the three finalists for this catergory I won first place. I told he rno way she had to kidding. I wouldn't believe her until she sent me proof in the form of a certificate. Now I'm struggling to send off the requested partial. I learned a lot from the contest judges AND I keep taking classes to help improve the writing along with a great critique group. I think contests can make or break you if you get ripped apart with nothing positive about it you migh tjust say never mind I can't do this. But just one or two positive comments and as you mentioned suggestions on making it better will be a boost to the new writer's ego and wirting too I think.:)
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