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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Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

I used to be a frequent contest entrant. Though I’m still unpublished, now I’m just a frequent judge–since I have an agent, it seems easier to let her get my work in front of editors than to deal with the contest crapshoot! (I did, however, enter the GH. I got my scores back on Friday and have since been fighting the urge to agonize about what my low scores, a pair of 5’s, mean. Of course the judge who gave me a 9 is clearly a woman of excellent taste…)

Anyway, I enjoy judging, and I’m a sucker for all those “help! judges needed!” emails, so I judge more than my share. I try to be a helpful, constructive judge and do my best to restrain my urge to nitpick. However, if anyone reading this has ever gotten feedback that starts with, “This is a minor point, so I’m not deducting points for this…” that then goes into a page-long essay on some point of Regency etiquette or 19th century military arcana, that was me. Hi! waves

One thing that I wish more contests did is provide the scores to the judges afterward so you can compare your scores to everyone else’s. Usually I’m more or less in line with the panel, but I’ve also been a finalist’s dropped low score on multiple occasions, or scored an entry high that other judges thought was mediocre, leading me to wonder if I missed some glaring flaw or just have unusual tastes.

One more thing–when I judge an entry that has serious, persistent problems with grammar or punctuation, I often recommend The Elements of Style and Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Is that helpful, or something obnoxious I should stop doing?

Cara King
15 years ago

Susan Wilbanks wrote: I got my scores back on Friday and have since been fighting the urge to agonize about what my low scores, a pair of 5’s, mean.

Susan, I’ve been there! And let me tell you, sometimes they mean zip, zilch, nada, absolutely nothing.

Take MY LADY GAMESTER as an example. As a manuscript, it won the Royal Ascot, and won the Regency category AND the grand prize in the Golden Rose. My editor bought it right away, and had a sum total of one (1) revision suggestion, and that was tiny. And then when published, it won the Bookseller’s Best Award for best Regency, and was a finalist for the Award of Excellence and the Holt Medallion.

And it got two 5’s in the Golden Heart.

So, you never know! Sometimes judges want one kind of thing, and not another. They think Regency stories should be about the haut ton, and yours was about country gentry… Or they want to read about country gentry, and you gave them foreign aristocrats.

Or maybe they erroneously consider themselves experts on the period, and think they’ve found all sorts of errors that aren’t.

In my experience, as there’s no feedback with the GH, it’s best to just ignore the scores. Brooding about them cannot possibly lead to anything good, because the best you can ever do is just guess at what the judges thought!

Which I expect you already know. πŸ™‚

Cara

Cara King
15 years ago

Diane wrote:
Those of you who have had the courage to enter contests, do you have any contest horror stories?

I’m sure every frequent contest entrant (or ex-frequent-contest-entrant) does!

Some judges, I found, were really complete novices, and had read one craft book, which they overinterpreted, and thought was The Holy Word of How To Write. These would scold me because (I’m not making this up) I had not made clear the internal and external goals, motivations and conflicts for my hero and again for my heroine, by page 2.

Sigh.

My first (as yet unpublished, but GH finalist) Regency starts with one of those somewhat satirical omniscient narrators for a page before sliding into a scene… One judge wrote “This is Author POV and a NO-NO.” (I guess I got a time-out for that one.)

And then there was the very well-meaning judge who, unfortunately, didn’t know the period at all, and wrote things like:

Did you still marry your cousin in Regency time? (To which I was tempted to reply, Well, you didn’t have to.) πŸ™‚

And, when I mentioned a gentleman wearing pantaloons: Were breeches or pants in this time period called this?

Once a judge wrote “this is so bad” in the margin. I didn’t know if she meant the sentence, the paragraph, or the whole thing, but by that point I didn’t much care what she thought. πŸ™‚

Or, maybe you can tell me if a judge ever actually HELPED you.

Oh, now you want us to be nice? Much less fun!

Okay, just kidding.

I definitely had judges who helped me. Lots of times. I just can’t think of any amusing anecdotes. πŸ™‚

PPS Don’t Neptune’s abs remind you of Gerard Butler in 300?

I finally saw 300, Diane! The fight scenes were very interesting.

Cara

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

Ah, Susan! I totally agree with Cara. The Golden Heart scores mean nothing. Except if they are high. I doubt anyone scores a ms high that they don’t think is very very good, but they can have all kinds of stupid reasons to score it low.

And I agree with your decision not to enter contests. I didn’t have an agent (not for lack of trying)so contests were more important to me.

I have to laugh at your judging style! Had I received feedback like that, I would have loved it.

It is a shame schools don’t do better at teaching basic grammar and punctuation. I think it is okay to suggest the books. Although I’ve read that Eats, Shoots and Leaves makes some errors. It does make punctuation accessible, though.

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

PPS Don’t Neptune’s abs remind you of Gerard Butler in 300?

I finally saw 300, Diane! The fight scenes were very interesting.

I suppose you noticed all those limbs flying willy nilly. I honestly didn’t notice until the third viewing. But I may have been distracted by Gerry’s abs.

By the way, Gerard Butler is receiving an award!
Gerard Butler will receive the Action Movie Star of the Year prize at next month’s 2007 Taurus World Stunt Awards. The 300 star will be honored at the World Stunt Foundation’s Hollywood ceremony, which is being hosted by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on May 20th.
Butler says, “It is such a special honor to receive this award from the stunt community. In each action film I’m a part of, I am continually amazed by their remarkable talent. While I am proud to receive this accolade, I am keenly aware of whom the real action heroes are.”

Sigh. Isn’t he nice??????

Kalen Hughes
15 years ago

When I enter the RITA, I don’t want to even see my scores. Either you final or you don’t. And if you don’t, what do you care what the scores are? Same with the Golden Heart, IMO.

Horror stories? Oh yeah. My second book finaled in the GH, but months before that got a 37 and a 57 (out of 100) in another contest. The “37” judge wrote: “I loathe everything about your hero.” on the comment sheet. LOL!

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

“I loathe everything about your hero.”

Surely that judge knew this is NOT a helpful statement.
I did explain to an entrant or two why I thought her hero behaved unheroically.

I am perverse enough to want to see my scores. But I don’t let them get me down, because you just never know why people score low.

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

“I loathe everything about your hero.”

I’ll admit to having thought things like this as a judge. But I don’t say them. I say I had trouble sympathizing with the hero and try to suggest fixes that wouldn’t completely contradict the author’s vision of the character (the ones that bother me are usually attempted alpha heroes who come across as alpha heels).

As for nightmare judges, I once had one who said there was absolutely nothing about my story that would make her want to keep reading it. And while she didn’t out-and-out say she hated my hero and heroine, she was pretty sarcastic and snippy in her comments about them.

WRT my GH scores, I entered enough contests with that manuscript to hazard a guess what the 5’s mean–it’s either judges like Cara describes who’ve read a How to Write book and mark you down for bending the rules, not doing GMC according to the exact formula they were taught, or daring to sprinkle in the occasional adverb, or else judges who only like certain types of stories and just couldn’t connect to my setting or h/h.

janegeorge
15 years ago

As an entrant, I’ve scored ones and nines in the same contest, and frequently end up with a discrepancy judge’s score. In the beginning I was either indignant or amused, but it’s taught me that my work is polarizing and that’s been a real insight into the market.

As a judge, I’m having a bit harder time with entries that are just okay. Yes, the entrant can write a sentence, the period details are pretty good, the period voice is pretty good, but the STORY is weak or just like a thousand other stories.

How do I give a writer encouragement to dig deeper for a story that will stand out in a tough marketplace? Or am I wrong to expect or want this?

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

Susan,
It is very difficult when there are huge problems in a contest entry, but I agree with you, Janegeorge, that it is even harder when the entry is good but not good enough.

No matter what, judging is a hard prospect!!

Judy T
Judy T
15 years ago

My English 101 teacher informed me that she hated my writing and she hated creative writing students. She huffily stated that she couldn’t teach me anything. I stuck out the class to prove I could pass it. I was withdrawn the first semester, and got a C the second time around. Stupid thing to do. Should have swallowed my pride and taken someone who could teach me. In English 102, I passed with straight A’s. I guarantee my style had not changed that much.

Years later, I took linguistics. I learned more about the English language in that one class than in all of my English classes combined previously. Dr Garcia spelled out exactly what he wanted, down to the number of paragraphs (5, 1 opening, 1 closing, 3 supporting) and sentences, ie, the supporting paragraphs were to have an opening sentences with 3 supporting sentences. He mapped out a proper paper. I was able to give him exactly what he wanted.

What does this have to do with the topic? I hate it when someone says, “That was awful.” What? What was awful? The grammar, the plot, the characters? What kind of feedback is that? It’s worse than useless because it not only tells you nothing but it’s also demeaning.

If I don’t like a story, I can tell you exactly why and recognize whether is it related to style, which is simply personal preference, or technical. I go nuts when I see a character called something completely unrelated (I just read one where the character’s name was Michael but was called Collin) for two pages. I resented having to reread those pages three times to figure out what happened, which turned out to be not much.

In my own writing, I like feedback that helps me improve. Many times, my friend who edits for me will write back how she’d like to see a sentence changed and I’ll realize that I did not explain myself correctly because her change is not what I meant at all. That kind of editing has always produced a far superior story.

There are those writers who will be offended no matter how helpful you are. They want to be told how great it is, with no critism of their baby.

On the other hand, I never let my mother read anything I write because I know she will critique my work until it more hers than mine. It’s one thing to offer ideas for improvement and something else to take away a writer’s voice.

Good luck, Diane! I’m certain you’ll do a great job, and the entrants will be lucky to have you.

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

the STORY is weak or just like a thousand other stories.

Those are the toughest ones to judge IMHO–the ones that leave you bored and shrugging your shoulders. I can gush about a wonderful entry or give advice on improving pacing or clarifying POV, but it’s much harder to suggest improvements for stories that hit all the right notes without quite making a song.

Todd
15 years ago

I’ve never entered a writing contest. (Well, I won third place in an essay contest in third grade, if I recall…) But as the husband of a former contest junkie I could tell you such stories…such wailings…such gnashing of teeth…such Casting of the Idiot Judges into The Furthest Reaches Of The Abyss.

I could tell you. But that would be…er…telling. (Did I mention about never having entered a writing contest?)

Todd-who-still-thinks-he-wrote-quite-well-for-a-third-grader

Lindsey
15 years ago

My only contest experience so far is Avon FanLit – which was a whole different ball game. It was a fabulous learning experience, but oh my, the torture of watching the scores and comments come in! My favorite comment from the competition (for a collaborative novella with a Regency premise): “What’s a ton? Don’t you mean town?”

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

Judy T – I’m apalled at that English 101 teacher! Nobody should say that to anyone!
Reminds me of a friend of mine who took a writing class and the teacher told her she’d never make it as a writer. It stopped her from writing for about 8 years.
Anyway, I’m glad you had a good teacher to counteract the bad. I would have loved to learn such a concrete way to write a paper.
And hooray for good critiquers!

Todd, I HOPE you were very sympathetic!!

Lindsey, you made me laugh out loud…but I shouldn’t because how would you know what ton was unless you read a lot of Regencies.

Cara King
15 years ago

Lindsey, you made me laugh out loud…but I shouldn’t because how would you know what ton was unless you read a lot of Regencies.

Yes, but don’t you think a ton-ignorant person should be *aware* they don’t know anything about the Regency, and give the person who writes “ton” the benefit of the doubt? πŸ™‚

Cara

Todd
15 years ago

Diane wrote:

Todd, I HOPE you were very sympathetic!!

Oh, absolutely! I nodded vigorously whenever a judge was Cast Into The Furthest Reaches Of The Abyss, and agreed that it was really too good for them. And I made tea.

Todd-who-finds-that-tea-is-useful-for-many-situations

Elena Greene
15 years ago

As a judge I certainly try to be helpful. I do avoid statements like “don’t quit your day job” even though this is actually quite sensible advice for anyone venturing into novel-writing. πŸ™‚ I try to be specific in my comments and check references if it’s a historical accuracy glitch.

I’ve had one contestant turn on me anyway. In a public forum she misrepresented what I wrote to garner sympathy. Gah. I’ll never get the hours back I spent on those comments. Anyway this is why I judge anonymously.

But usually judging is a great experience. Especially when I’ve had the honor of judging excellent entries from writers who finaled and/or won and went on to sell–including our own Cara and Diane!

As a contestant I’ve won and finaled but also sometimes gotten the spray of scores as others have mentioned.

And I find it no surprise at all to find other polarizing writers in this Risky community. πŸ™‚

Diane Perkins
15 years ago

I nodded vigorously whenever a judge was Cast Into The Furthest Reaches Of The Abyss, and agreed that it was really too good for them.

Todd, I am picturing the scene in 300 with a little role reversal. Cara, wearing a red cape, is holding a sword against the chest of a poor hapless contest judge. She turns to you, behind her, resplendent in a white toga. You nod vigorously. Cara turns back to the hapless judge who says, “This is madness!”
Cara gets a fierce look on her face (I’m CERTAIN you’ve seen such a look). She screams, “THIS IS GREAT WRITING!” and boots that judge right into the abyss.

Todd
15 years ago

Cara wrote:

Yes, but don’t you think a ton-ignorant person should be *aware* they don’t know anything about the Regency

Hey! I think you’ve coined a new description for bad judges of Regencies: ton deaf.

Todd-who-is-still-nodding-vigorously

Todd
15 years ago

Diane wrote:

Cara turns back to the hapless judge who says, “This is madness!” Cara gets a fierce look on her face (I’m CERTAIN you’ve seen such a look).

Er, well, yes, I have. I try not to have it directed at myself. πŸ™‚

Todd-who-is-nodding-even-more-vigorously