Thursday, June 10, 2010

Judging Contests as Helpful as Entering

Missy, here. This photo was taken at RWA National in 2006, the year I was a Golden Heart finalist. Such an exciting time! And boy, I entered a lot of contests during those years. (Still do, just published contests now!)

I've learned so much from entering contests--from the feedback and score sheets. But one thing I've always said is that I learn a whole lot from judging contests, too. I judge 4 or 5 a year these days, and you know what? I'm starting to think that maybe I've learned as much, if not more, from judging.

As I was judging an entry lately, I realized immediately that there was some information that the reader needed to know about the character sooner than it was revealed. And guess what? That's something my editor has had to tell me on more than one of my stories. So I think I'm learning more and more on each book! And I'm able to use that to help in my feedback in the contests I judge.

There's just something about looking at a manuscript objectively that makes a problem easier to spot. I think that's why it's important to have a critique partner or group. They can spot things you might miss in your own work just because you probably have parts of your manuscript pretty much memorized. :)

Here are some things that I've learned lately either from judging or from my own revision letter:

*Don't skimp on back story. But feed it in in little bits--AS NEEDED. (That means no back story dumps either.) The more I write and read, the more I've realized readers like to be in on secrets with a POV character. It makes it more fun than to have a surprise later. Let the reader in on the secret, then she'll get a thrill when the other character gets the surprise later. :)

*Be sure the reader knows what's in the POV character's head. We have to make sure our characters' motivations are clear. And CONSISTENT. Sure, in real life our emotions might be all over the place. But don't try to dump everything but the kitchen sink into your story. The reader will end up feeling like she's reading a character who is clueless or moody or...unstable! :) Try to be consistent in what the character is feeling, and let us know exactly what that is.

*Which leads me to say that you, the author, have to know what that character is feeling before you start writing. Sure, you may discover a lot of great stuff about a character as you go, but be sure you go back and change those beginning scenes to reflect that. Otherwise, once again, you'll have a rather unstable-looking character. (Unless, of course, you're writing someone who's supposed to be that way!) :)

*Watch your dialogue tags, especially with your action tags. Don't be repetitious. And be sure to vary sentence structure. Otherwise you'll have what I sometimes find in my manuscripts during the polishing. Here's a made-up example:

He stood and approached her, trying not to seem desperate. "I need to know how you feel."
She touched his hand. "That's not what's important right now."
He gave her a sad smile. "But I had hoped our relationship was important to you."
She glanced away. "No, I'm sorry, it's not."
He wasn't convinced she meant it. But what could he do? "Just keep telling yourself that."

See how it almost feels like the volley of a tennis ball? Back and forth, back and forth. No variation. Movement followed by speech and the occasional feeling inserted.


I tend to write that in a first draft. And that's fine. Some of you may do that as well. But as I'm revising and trying to spot problems like that, I'm also trying to teach myself to find it the first time through the manuscript--before I even turn it in. And taking a little time away from a manuscript can help with this. Can help us be more objective...'s to judging contests and learning. To figuring out a system for self editing. And to taking those first draft efforts and making them sparkle!

What are some tips you can give? Things that you've been learning lately?



  1. Missy,

    Great post!

    I, too, have learned from judging contests - as an unpub. I recognize things in others' writing that I've already learned - or most often - I see things the writer has done correctly and that aspect of writing becomes clearer to me.

    I am surprised at how much writers love tags - just can't let go of those tags that don't describe anything - "she said" "He said."

    And yes, I know I have to let go of those "dashes!" :)

  2. Edwina, I used to use sooo many em-dashes!! :) I think the use of them fits my voice. But I've cut way back. I started realizing it could be distracting. And I think it made my writing choppy.

    Of course, now I just use lots of short sentences. ;)

  3. I've not judged a lot of contests because I've felt I hadn't learned enough as a writer to do so intelligently. I've had judges who've given me advice counter to what I've learned which really steamed me because I was graded down on an area in which I knew more than the judge. BUT, I got over it.

    I have picked up a couple of contests and am judging them this year. My biggest problem is taking the time to judge and still continue my writing, but that's a problem everyone has.

    One of the most noticable things I've seen is the overuse of literary devices. I've seen both in an unpubbed and a pubbed contest. Both times it irritated and became repetitive real quick. So don't overuse those literary devices! And, use a variety of literary devices instead of the same one over and over.

    I also agree with you about backstory, Mindy. I've had to learn how to use it effectively, and when a writer doesn't, a wall is formed between the reader and the story. The reader will feel unattached and uncaring about your characters and their plight. Not a good thing.

  4. Dianna, you should consider your judging expertise as a reader as well as a writer! You'd do a great job.

    Thanks for managing to better say what it is about back story that's so important! If you don't do it well, it puts up a wall. Letting us see where the character is coming from (in reasonable amounts!) is what makes us bond with the character.

  5. Hi Missy:

    I love your picture! That’s an example of a smile that goes all the way to the eyes. (Does that wording sound literary?)

    They say the best way to learn something is to teach it and being a contest judge is a form of teaching. They also say that we can see faults in others that we can’t see in ourselves. (‘They’ sure have a lot of opinions.: ))

    For those who don’t get to judge contests or do not have the time to do it, I have a suggestion: do comprehensive book reviews. Pick the best books that are doing the most things right. Then point out the really ‘good stuff’. Reviewing can also be a form of ‘judging’ and any writer can do it when she has time. I learn a lot about writing by digging into a really good book and trying to find out what the author is doing better than anyone else does.

    Here’s something I’ve just encountered that I didn’t like. An historical author put an excess of brand names and factoids from the 1950’s in her story to make it seem authentic. It was too much. The items called attention to themselves and to what the author was trying to do. My advice: don’t use brand names or factoids in a historical at a higher rate than you would use them in a contemporary. Use them, yes -- but don’t use them to simply be using them.

    I would also like to see more surprises in novels. ‘Black moments’ tend to be very predictable. I would much rather see surprises than simply see the same tension increase.

    I think I liked “Waiting Out the Storm” so much because I was always being surprised. The same goes for “Romance by the Book”. I think every so often in writing a novel a bell should go off and the author would have to insert a surprise at that spot! This would be something that she had not thought about before. If the author was not thinking about it, the reader sure won't expect it!

    My rule: Don’t shoot someone. Surprise them!

    Thanks for your post.


  6. I usually only judge one contest a year---but would do more if I had more time. This year, I found myself commenting on more than half of the entries I judged that they can't start out a book camped out inside one character's head for page after page after page---that it's more important to see the character in action first, to learn about the character by seeing him/her interacting with others. That page after page of narrative virtually unbroken by dialogue and action doesn't make for a dynamic opening to a story.

    Almost immediately thereafter, I started on my next contemporary novel. And I discovered that my hero is taciturn---he's a one- or two-word response kind of guy. But he's very chatty inside his head. He's narrating his own scenes. Even though I have him with two other people for more than half of the time, much of his introductory scene takes place in his head.

    So was I doing what I'd just told all those contest entrants not to do? Well, I pulled them up and re-read them compared to mine and noticed a big difference. Most of the contest entrants had used their "camp out in the character's head" scenes to give backstory and try to *tell* the reader exactly who the character is. My character is actually participating in the action of the scene, and in the dialogue---but he's not really saying much aloud.

    So I think there was a definite reason why I got so many of those types of entries this year, because I needed that lesson before I started working with this character so I didn't fall into the trap of "camping out" in his head instead of making his narrative dynamic, active, and, in a strange way, interactive with what's going on around him.

    They say teachers learn as much if not more than students. I'd say the same is true about judging contests!

  7. Thanks, Vince!

    Yes, I've posted on this very thing before and talked about how we see a speck in someone else's eye but miss the plank in our own. LOL So I'm guilty of some many of the things I can find in others' work. That's why I learn so much doing it!

    Great idea to review book, Vince. I've been doing some reading lately looking for very specific things--to see how the author does it. It's a great way to study.

  8. Hi, Kaye. Thanks for stopping by!

    So true about perfect timing on those entries! And you pointed out a big difference in those static openings. Yours isn't really static. It's just a bit quiet. :)

    I love the sound of your hero! I bet he's fun.

  9. Excellent points, Missy. I'm discovering how expensive some published contests are. It's a whole new ballgame compared to unpublished contests--or so it seems.

  10. Yes, Jenn, they really are expensive. And even more for you because your books cost more and are heavier for the shipping!

    Still, I've budgeted for it. I enter several each year. Last year I had 2 books to enter.

  11. Missy,

    I have learned so much from judging. Especially regarding the synopsis. I enjoy judging also. I can pick out something in a contest entry and think--oh, I do that, too. So I go and check out my story--and learn from it.

    Thanks for this post.. Hey-did I take that pic? I love it!

  12. The photo is one that was taken with Janet Dean. I needed a photo with less pixels, so used that one and cut Janet out. Shhh, don't tell her! :)

    I think my hubby took it before the ceremony began.

  13. I am going to have to print this post out Missy. A lot of very good information. I am new to contests though and was wondering if judges write comments like this on writer's manuscripts? Are they usually this specific? Thanks!

  14. Eva Maria, the judge comments can really vary. Some judges are, well...meanspirited (Lindi has had some doozies!) And some judges just do a better job. I really like contests that train the judges or at least have a document that explains what they should do.

    I took at training at the RWA conference one year and really learned a lot.

    I usually put very specific comments when I judge. Things like: your hero seems to be acting out of character here; this paragraph is hard to read; nice description here; I think maybe your story really starts here (and the beginning should be considered backstory); not sure this is the correct word choice; be sure to add more of the romance arc in your synopsis; what emotion is he feeling here?; you're telling here what you show nicely in the next paragraph, so you could cut this.

    Things like that. :) I also try to put smiley faces and stuff that I like to see in critiques that I get back!

    You know, the golden rule really applies in judging and critiquing.

  15. I think the more specific comments are much better Missy. Thanks for sharing some of them here. And I'm sorry to hear that Lindi had to run into such unnecessary negativity. Glad she had your support!