And the Award Goes To…Who?

No, this isn’t a post about the SAG Awards. I’ll leave that to Amanda, our resident fashionista, but I will say that the dresses were much better than the Golden Globes, except for Meryl Streep, whose daughter looks just like her but was better dressed. Angelina Jolie managed to look frumpy.

What I’m really blogging about is judging contests. This is Romance’s season of contests and lots of us will be judging contests, the RITAs (Romance Writers of America’s awards for published books), the Golden Heart (RWA’s unpublished manuscript contest), and RWA Chapter contests.

I’m judging the RITAs right now and just dipped into my first entry. I have seven books in a variety of categories, mostly Series romance, which I hardly ever read on my own. I decided to start with the ones I least wanted to read and, lo and behold, I really liked the first book I picked up.

Here are my personal criteria to judge The RITAs. This would work for the Golden Heart, too.

9 – I’d really like this enty to win
8 – I wouldn’t mind this entry winning
7 – This is very good, but it shouldn’t win
6 – This is above average
5 – This is competently written but it is just average
4 – This is below average; it has some problems
3 – This has even more problems
2 – This one is very flawed
1 – I can’t imagine scoring a 1 – it would have to be incoherent.

I start out with the premise that I’m picking up a winner, then tick off “points” if I discover problems or if the story ultimately disappoints me.

I also thought a bit about what it is that makes me like a book:

1. It makes me care about the characters. In this book, I didn’t like the hero much at first, but he did intrigue me and that was enough. He changed into a character I did like.

2. The characters feel like real people, not cliches. These characters were familiar “types” but the author succeeded in giving them a fresh look.

3. I want to keep reading. I didn’t want to put this book down.

4. Everything makes sense. The characters’ motivations, how they behave, what happens, all makes sense; nothing feels contrived. Nothing happens that makes me feel, “Naw. That ain’t right.”

5. The pacing seems right. Too often we speed up at the story’s end and it can feel rushed. This one did pretty good. This book strayed a teensy bit from my ideal. Not much though.

6. Nothing stops me and makes me have to go back to figure it out. In this case, I had to go back for one detail, but that was all.

This book will get high marks from me and it encourages me to read the next one on my list.

How about you? What makes a book or a contest entry a winner to you? What are your criteria? Even if you are primarily a reader, you know what makes a good book.

Contests have been very kind to me. I sold my first book entirely because of the Golden Heart and I won Romance’s highest award, the RITA the second time I entered for A Reputable Rake. (That’s me with the Mills & Boon editors in Atlanta, 2007)

What contests are you entering?

There is still time to enter my contest. And come visit the Wet Noodle Posse for more tips on how to be good to yourself.

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Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

This is excellent contest-judging advice, Diane! It can be tricky sometimes to know how to score a book, this is a big help. (I also got a lot of series books for the RITA, a variety of different lines–haven’t read these in a long time, so I’m enjoying re-discovering them! But I had to cut back on my own contest-entering this year due to budgets, sigh)

13 years ago

Thanks for posting your methods and thought behind the judging. I’m judging the GH and it now looks like a breeze compared to judging the Rita and reading all those entire novels.

The only contest I’m entering is the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual contest. I’m now deciding which of my racehorses will start, so to speak, and if I can afford for more than one to run.

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

I’m entering the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Assoc and the Royal Ascot.

Thanks for all the tips on what you look for.

Susan Wilbanks
13 years ago

I like your RITA/GH scoring scale, and will use it if/when I judge those contests in the future. In the past, I’ve done this convoluted thing where I assign the manuscript a grade on a scale of 1-100, and then convert that into the 9-point scale. As a result, I probably overscored a little, since I was giving very flawed manuscripts scores around 5, since that’s what a D-/F+ numeric grade would work out to.

That said, there’s a part of me that wants to inflate my scores a little for anything below the top of the pack, especially in chapter contests where I’m providing feedback as well as a score. I still vividly remember how upset I was in my early contesting days when I got 55/100, because I felt like the judge had given me an F. It was days before I could look at the scoresheet and see that she’d actually given me a lot of encouraging feedback. Clearly by her comments she thought I was a promising writer who just had a lot to learn, and in her mind she’d probably given me a C, maybe even a C+. 🙂 But that’s why I’ll pad the score a little sometimes–I feel like a newbie author is a lot more likely to hear my feedback if the scoresheet says 70/100 than 30/100, and it’s not going to impact who makes the finals.

I’m not entering any contests just now. I thought about entering the Amazon contest that’s partly reader-judged, but decided that preparing the entry would be putting too much energy into a completed manuscript in a genre I’m not even currently writing. I’m better off focusing on my WIP.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Jane, I judged the GH a couple years ago, and in some ways judging the RITAs is actually a bit easier (if more time-consuming!). I enjoy them both, though.

I just looked at pics from the SAGs, too–I really loved Kate Winslet (gorgeous blue color) and Emily Blunt. I get the feeling Jolie just isn’t trying anymore…

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

Is Angelina Jolie going into some kind of personal and/or artistic decline? I hope not!!!

Cara King
13 years ago

I had a nice little comment all written, and then I lost my internet connection (again! it was down most of yesterday and part of Saturday too, grrr)!

I think judging the Rita is hard in that there’s a lot of reading to do….whereas with the Golden Heart, there’s a lot less reading, but somehow it feels more crucial to me not to get it wrong. (I think it probably has more actual impact on careers…) And then with chapter contests, there’s a huge amount of work in giving helpful, correct, and yet *encouraging* feedback!

And trying to find a way to explain what a dangling modifier is. 😉

But one nice thing about judging is that I always learn a lot…

And when I judge, I love a book or manuscript that excites me in some way…whether I just love the prose, or the humor, or I get involved with the characters, or whatever…

And I generally prefer something that’s flawed but has some really good stuff in it, to something that’s polished but doesn’t excite me anywhere…


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Susan, let me say that I can’t imagine giving anyone lower than a 5, although I did one time to a book that had huge problems that could not be ignored.

To me, the important scores are the top ones and the most important criterion is do I want this book to win? If I don’t, I still give it the highest score I can, just not high enough to win. I think most books deserve decent scores.

In judging chapter contests I really try to give helpful comments and to always keep in mind that there is a hopeful writer just like I was behind that entry. I make sure I focus on the good things in the entry as well as the problems.

When I was entering lots of chapter contests, I only listened to the criticism if it gave me that “Doh! Why didn’t I think of that” feeling.

13 years ago

**Is Angelina Jolie going into some kind of personal and/or artistic decline? I hope not!!!**

LOL, it’s called being a mom to more than one kid under four years old.

Keira, good luck in the PNWA and the RA. I’m entering the YA category and possibly mainstream if I can swing it.

Amanda, I judged the GH last year and spent mucho time agonizing over the scores I gave. I agree that the GH scores are important. Not only for careers but for the reputation of the contest. Since this is my sophomore judging year, there will probably be less agonizing and quicker honing in on the merits/faults of the entries. It is fun to feel like an editor/agent, hoping to pick up a ms. that sings!

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I always learn a lot by judging, too! It is one of the best reasons to judge. One of the things I learn is how much I know, how far I’ve come from my newbie days.

13 years ago

Diane, that’s a great judging scale. I use something similar to (informally) rank the books that I read but I like yours much better.

I’m not an author so no contests for me. I’ll just go merrily along, reviewing the wonderful published books that all of you talented people write. 🙂

Good luck to all of you who are entering chapter contests and have stories being judged for the Golden Heart and RITA.

13 years ago

I like that scale. It makes good sense. Not that I’ve done any official judging but every time I read a book I’m asking myself first if I like the characters, then does it make sense. And finally if the book is one I want to read again. I keep the ones I want to read again and pass along the rest.

Megan Frampton
13 years ago

Diane, awesome, and awesome timing, thank you! I just started reading my RITA books, and will be reading more later on tonight.

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

I’m so happy that this year I’m off the hook both for entering and therefore judging the RITAs, because I hate the whole business so much.

Last year I developed my own matrix and my scores came out so low by the time I translated them into the 1 thru 9 numbers that I added on 50% to each so that I wouln’t feel mean. They still came out pretty low. I really think I got some stinkers, apart from one that was unequivocally a 9 for me.

ALL my books have tanked in the RITAs with wildly divergent scores, whatever that may mean.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Janet, you just haven’t found the right judges for your books. There is that element of luck to overcome.

PJ, readers are why we write! We write for you.

I really try to read these RITA books as just a reader. That’s my favorite way to read.

Linda Banche
13 years ago

My feelings about contests are ambivalent. Since I don’t have a critique partner, I’ve used the contests as critiques. And I always take the comments with a grain of salt. I’ve never won or finaled, although my scores were generally high. Just not high enough.**grins**. And right now, I’m in RWA limbo. According to RWA policies, with two novellas from an RWA approved publisher, I’m “published”, but not “mass-market published” so I can’t enter either the Rita or the GH. My contest days are over.

13 years ago

What makes a good book is lots of car chases and explosions.

Oh, no, wait, that’s what makes a good movie. Sorry. I have no idea what makes a good book, except that when I get to the end I think “Wow, what a good book!” 🙂


Janet Mullany
13 years ago

Linda, I’m so sorry you’re caught in RWA limbo. There are a few contests that are open to pubbed/unpubbed and/or unpubbed in the category you’re entering–Maryland Romance Writers Vixen and Passionate Ink’s unpubbed contest (that I can never remember the name of!) off the top of my head.
Best of luck to you.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I have no idea what makes a good book, except that when I get to the end I think “Wow, what a good book!” 🙂

Todd, That’s my goal when I write a book. What author could want more?

Linda, do explore chapter contests. The rules are looser. But don’t worry about it. You can put your publishing credits in a query letter and that serves the same purpose — getting editor attention for the book!

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