The Other Side of Contests

This marble bas-relief by Antonio Lombardo in 1508 is called “The Contest Between Minerva and Neptune,” which has very little to do with my topic. I did, however, feel I must crop this image or figure out how to add fig leaves. Antonio, it seemed, liked naked realism and I figured our blog should be at least a PG 13!

It is Romance Writing Contest time again, the time when many hopeful romance writers are biting their nails, hoping their entries make the finals in a contest, hoping they win, get requested by the judging editor, and finally make that sale. I remember how that feels–it wasn’t so long ago that I was The Contest Empress, entering every contest I could find with those same hopes. At the same time that I was entering contests, I was also judging some of them. Judging was another learning tool then. It was amazing how much the “theory” of writing Romance became crystal clear when judging the anonymous works of other hopeful writers.

I always volunteer to judge my Chapter contests, The Royal Ascot for Beau Monde, The Fool for Love for Viginia Romance Writers, and The Marlene for Washington Romance Writers. The last two years, for unusual reasons I hadn’t been sent judging packets. This year I am experiencing this whole judging thing anew. Both Royal Ascot entries and Fool for Love entries have arrived and I’m plowing through them.

This time I’m much more confident that I know what makes a good story and good writing, but I’m also very sensitive to the idea that what I say will have an impact on a hopeful entrant. I want to be encouraging but I also want to be realistic. I don’t want to mislead a writer if I think something they’ve done would get in the way of the manuscript being published, especially if I think they could fix it. I know my heart is in the right place, but I don’t know if my words will feel that way to the contest entrant.

We all have a learning curve in our writing. For some whose natural story-telling ability is innate, the learning curve may be short, but for others it might be long. If these writers have the courage to enter contests at the beginning of their long curve, I don’t want to discourage them even if it seems like they have so much to learn. The problem is, how much to say is helpful and how much hurtful?

If someone is at the beginning of their learning curve, I want them to feel that they’ve learned something after reading my comments. I tell everyone to only believe criticism if it gives you that “Duh. Why didn’t I see that?” moment. But I have no idea if what I say provides such a moment.

I remember when I was entering the contests for unpublished writers, one of my judges suggested “How to Write” books to me. I was by that time a pretty seasoned writer so I felt insulted. I don’t suggest How to Write books, needless to say.

Woe is the poor person whose entry is Regency-set (all of the Royal Ascot entries, of course). I will actually check facts, especially titles, to make sure they are accurate, but I try not to make my bias toward historical accuracy too big a factor, because I know that editors don’t care as much as I do if the daughter of a viscount is called Lady Mary or Miss Mary or Miss Smith (Miss Smith is correct).

I’ve had wonderful contest criticism. One I remember was a judge catching the fact that I used the word “discrete” when I really meant “discreet.” (I can’t tell you how many people read that word and didn’t catch it!) I’ve have horrible criticism, like the judge who judged me down for my historical facts and I was correct! Or the “How to Write” book recommendations.

Those of you who have had the courage to enter contests, do you have any contest horror stories? Or, maybe you can tell me if a judge ever actually HELPED you.
If you haven’t entered contests – either because you don’t want to or you are a reader not a writer–what do you think would hurt and what would help?

This year a critique by me is part of the prize for the Historical category of The Marlene Contest. We’re announcing the winner at Washington Romance Writers Retreat this weekend. That means I’ll have to give someone a detailed critique and it will be considered a prize.

But wasn’t it just yesterday, I was the entrant and some multi-published author gave the critique?
Wow.

Cheers!
Diane

PS I’ll blog about the Retreat next Monday!
PPS Don’t Neptune’s abs remind you of Gerard Butler in 300?

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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