judging contests

Okay, I’ve got just a little rant. Walk away now if you don’t want to hear it, but it’s just gotta come out or I’m going to burst!

Here’s the skinny. For those of you who visit here regularly you know I’m a contest whore. Really. As soon as my first manuscript was finished, I entered contests. Everyone says … decide why you’re entering. Pshaw I wanted to WIN and get the coveted contract. Yeeeeeah, so didn’t happen, but I did learn a lot about writing from judges who were willing to lay it on the line and say WTH?. They didn’t sugarcoat what was on the page. Because my writing at the time was ba-a-a-a-ad! It wasn’t even salvagable.

(Now, I must also admit at this point, I have the self-confidence of 10 people. Seriously. If I could bottle it and sell it, I’d retire a rich woman. I’m not saying it’s deserved, it’s just a cocky arrogance that makes me believe I can do or be anything I want. That being said … obviously I wasn’t deterred from my plan to write and publish. Anywho…)

Now I want to return the favor. I’m judging contests of unpublished writers. I know where they’re at. I know what they’re hoping for. But here’s the thing, I refuse to pretend their writing is wonderful if indeed … it isn’t. Nope, I won’t do it. I honestly believe not everyone who wants to write books has the talent to do it. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn if they are driven to do it. Because I also believe if you want it bad enough then keep pushing and you can make it happen.

I don’t fall in the camp of giving nothing less than a three when judging. No. Nope. Won’t do it! Because there are 2’s and 1’s in the scale because it is possible for a new writer not to have developed a skill and warrent the low score. Of course when I give that score I explain in detail why that skill didn’t come through in the writer’s piece. The true writer, the one whose characters scream at them in the night and whose stories have to be told, aren’t going to be deterred. They’re going to cry and scream and hate that nasty judge for a couple of days and then they’re going to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, look at the comments objectively and learn their craft.

I’m not mean by any stretch of the imagination, but I state my honest opinion as tactfully as possible. It’s what I want. If my book isn’t up to snuff I want my critique partners to tell me.

If I send something to an agent or editor it’s their job to tell the truth. If the story sucks … it sucks. There’s no nice way to say “really Nina, this isn’t ready to be published. I think you need to step back and hone your craft.” Their job is not to coddle my tender ego. They don’t have to be nice, they have to be honest.

Publishing is a tough business. It hurts and it exhilirates. Every high comes with some really crappy lows. It’s a wild roller coaster ride. It’s not meant for the faint of heart or people not willing to learn their craft. Get over it. Honesty may hurt, but sugarcoating the truth doesn’t get a person anywhere.

There you have it. Don’t ask me if you don’t want the truth.

Hello, my name is Nina and I’m a contest whore.

Yep, I’ve said it out loud more than once. I’m competitive. Now that I’m older it’s just against myself. Still, I want to push myself to be the best. Before I was published I entered contest after writing contest. I was sure not only would I win, but my manuscript would be snatched up by the reading editor and I would net a nice, fat contract. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA … *wipes tears* Sorry, give me a minute while I have a good laugh …

K, I’m good. As you can imagine that first manuscript didn’t place anywhere near the top of the pile. BUT some very lovely judges took time to leave some wonderful comments on my manuscript and on the score sheet. Since I entered the same manuscript in different types of contests, like Best First Kiss or Best Love Scene or Favorite Ending, I got feedback on all parts of my writing. And I can’t thank those judges enough. They gently shaped my writing into something I could actually submit to a publisher. And now I can call myself a published author. (Weeelllll, not that first manuscript. It’s buried sooooo deep in the shadows of the couch with the dust bunnies, that it will never see the light of day.)

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

So now it’s my turn to repay the favor. For the last few years I’ve voulunteered to judge different contests for unpublished writers. I really enjoy it. I’ve read everything from winners who received contracts from Berkley to novice writers just learning their craft and beginning their journey. Of course it’s easy to gush over the entry that is ready to submit. The prose are stellar, the dialogue is snappy and you just fall in love with the hero and heroine. But you know, it’s the entry you know won’t be anywhere near the top that presents the most interesting challenge for me as a judge.

I believe in honesty. There is no reason to sugar-coat the truth about someone’s writing … they have their families and friends to cheer them on that way. My job is to teach and help the author improve so that some day they will publish.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not mean-spirited. What’s the sense in that? (Though I’ve heard nightmare stories of judges who were brutal in their comments.) I recently judged an entry that scored very low. But I took time on every part of the judge’s sheet to explain the score on each section. I also left comments in the body of the manuscript and complimented her wonderful descriptions and use of senses. My goal, once the disappointment washes over her, is to offer a chance for the author to learn the craft.

I often don’t know if my critique helps. It’s rare a judge receives notes of thanks (though I highly recommend entrants send them), but the teacher in me hopes that I’ve helped at least a little.

One of the contests I judged this year actually sent the list of scores for each entry. It was really interesting to see that some I scored high received low marks from others as well as the opposite. Goes to show not everyone enjoys reading the same thing.

So, as an aspiring author, do you enter contests? Do you find them helpful? And if you’re published, do you enter your stories in contests? I’m still looking to garner that first place spot. I can’t help it, it’s hardwired into me.

Contests. I love to hate them. (Sheesh, this love/hate thing seems to be a theme this week.) Anyhoodles. Writers have many opportunities to participate in contests. I entered them when I first began writing because I needed the affirmation that I’d written the next best seller. (Lack of confidence has never been one of my problems. *g*)

What I discovered instead was several wonderful judges who took the time to explain all the things I was doing wrong. Since I entered all different contests from first chapters, to first kiss, to best endings, I learned so much. I never did final in a contest for unpublished writers. As a highly competitve person who always wants to finish first this was such a bummer, but I survived. And I not only survived the constructive criticism, I learned

I now have the opportunity to do the same for other writers. I’m judging writing contests and thoroughly enjoying myself. With my teaching background I rarely have problems finding positive ways to offer advice and soften the teaching moments. (I hope.) Still, it hurts. I have no doubt these writers sent in a story they believed was ready to be published. And some of them were, others … not so much.

I’m happy for the finalists, but my heart is with those that are going to receive less than stellar scores via email or snail mail. For some, there will be tears and frustration. Disbelief as they leaf through the pages reading judge’s comments. I have no doubt. I’ve been there. I can only hope these writers don’t become so discouraged that they walk away from their dreams. I hope they take this opportunity and learn from their mistakes so that their stories become stronger and their writing better.

Being a published author takes tenacity. Perseverence. Thick skin. I hope if you’ve entered a contest that you keep on keepin’ on. Because that’s the only way to get the brass ring.