Confessions of a Contest Judge

by Willa Blair

In my last post, I gave you some tips to ‘spiff up’ your contest submission. Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about what it’s like to be a contest judge.

Contest judges don’t know you. The judge receives each entry with a unique number on it, not your name. All they know about your writing is what you submitted to their category (historical, paranormal, etc.) and that your entry should fit within the parameters of that category.

Contest judges provide honest feedback, not just a numerical score. Most of them take that responsibility very seriously. And ‘honest feedback’ does not mean, well, mean. A good judge takes the time to help the writer understand what they did right as well as what they did wrong-and offers some ideas to fix what needs fixing.

They know that not all writers have experience accepting criticism. In fact, most aren’t very good at it. Are you? That thick skin takes years to develop. Mine still has thin spots. Judges are writers, too. They know it’s important to be helpful but not hurtful. After all, it’s just their opinion, especially if the problem is plot- or conflict-related, and another judge may like what they don’t.

Yes, scoring is subjective. What one judge (or agent or editor or reader) loves, another may hate. That’s the writing life. That’s the business we’re in. It’s important to recognize that and take from a judge’s comments only what is useful to you. Discard the rest. Really? Yes. It’s your writing. If all the judges mark up the same thing, chances are you need to pay attention to it. If there’s a diversity of opinion, go with your gut and your voice.

Punctuation and grammar problems? Okay, that involves the Style Manual’s opinion, too. Yes, it’s frustrating as a judge to wade through 8th grade mistakes. Yes, the author should have had an editor, or at least a friend, read their entry before they submitted it. Contest entries come in all skill levels. So judges mark up the mistakes — and they will affect your score.

Oh no, the author forgot to include the required synopsis? Or they exceeded the page limit? If the coordinator accepted the entry and can’t or won’t go back to the author, the best a judge can do is give fewer–or even zero–points in the affected category. That happened to me recently. The entry could have been a winner…but a key requirement was missing, so the hit to their total points kept them from even becoming a finalist. I almost cried. The entry was really that good…except for one major ooops.

The synopsis makes no sense? The book may be fabulous and the author just doesn’t understand how to write a synopsis. It’s a skill, and it’s not easy to learn. If a judge gets out their red pen/track changes/caps and font color change, or whatever, and shows the author (as much as they can) how to salvage it, it behooves the author to pay attention. The author might want to use that synopsis to submit to an agent or editor. The judge’s feedback can help sell the story.

General comments are useful and most judges try to provide them. Positive feedback about what worked is just as valuable as the truth about what needs work. Themes, big picture, consistent mistakes: this is where to find them.

Finally, a thank you to the judge through the contest coordinator is a nice thing to do and is appreciated – especially if the judge has taken a lot of time going over your entry. The more comments and corrections you see, the more you should think about doing just that. Any judge can give a top score and a “loved it”.  Yes, those are wonderful to get, but the real value of the contest is in the feedback that helps you improve your writing.

Visit me at www.willablair.com

Confessions of a Contest Winner

by Willa Blair

Have you ever entered a contest? No? For heaven’s sake, why not?  Where else can you get anonymous feedback on your work?

There are lots of contests available to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re pre-published or have dozens of books on the shelves; there are contests for you, all the way up to the RWA Golden Heart for pre-published authors and RWA Rita for published works.  Many RWA chapters run contests, and the contest coordinator in your category is the only one who sees your name–the judges don’t.  Check RWA’s website for lists of chapter contests and dates. Most run between June and August.

Feedback is honest (some might say blunt) but remember that it’s not coming from friends telling you what they think you want to hear or even what they think will help you. The feedback comes from strangers reacting solely to what they read on the page (or on the screen).  And being individuals, the different judges who review your work may have very different, even conflicting, opinions of it. You can learn a lot from that.

But if the judges do their job as they should, whether you win, place or barely get out of the gate, you’ll be a winner. You’ll come away with ideas, suggestions, and critique that point out the weaknesses in your story or in your writing, as well as suggestions for improvement.  You’ll also find out what works, what turns of phrase they really like, and what your strengths are.

Becoming a finalist in a contest is a professional high point, no doubt about it. I rank the phone call telling me I was a finalist in the 2011 Marlene Paranormal category right up there with the call that an actor gets who has been nominated for an Academy Award.  And the win was even better. This year, I won the SARA Merritt Paranormal category for a different book, and that process was just as thrilling. But in both cases, besides the certificates and mementos, the value that I took from the contests was the feedback from the judges and from the publishing house editors who picked the winners from among the finalists.

Some tips:

Read and understand the rules of the contest. If you don’t follow those, you can’t win. Your entry might even be refused and returned to you.

Clean up your entry.  Contest judges want clean, grammatical submissions just like editors do. And if you final, a publishing house editor will be reading your submission, so give the contest entry the same scrutiny you would give a partial- or full-manuscript submission to a publisher you hope will buy your book.

Tighten, tighten, tighten that synopsis. And then polish, polish, polish.  Most contests only allow five pages.  That’s not a lot and it’s tough to tell the story of your entire book in five pages: the romance, the stakes for the hero and heroine, and how they grow together. But you can do it if you’re ruthless in your editing.

Good luck and remember, you have to enter to win!

Visit me on www.willablair.com