Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Writing Contests - I'd Rather be a Judge

I’ve only entered 3 writing contests, and that was at the start of my career. Of course I didn’t expect to win a publishing contract. I was a newbie, learning the ropes. My number 1 reason for entering was feedback. I wanted to learn from writers who were further along in their careers. A critique from an experienced writer would be invaluable – or so I thought. My second reason for entering was to get myself used to formatting a submission and following a deadline.

Entering contests cost money. There’s a fee to be sent along with your entry so I chose carefully, selecting 3 that were suited to my genre. To say I was disappointed with the results would be an understatement.

The scores were all over the place. The first entry came back. One score in the nineties and one in the eighties. The third was in the fifties. The judge who scored me the lowest offered very few comments along with her numbers. She did say that my hero wasn’t alpha enough because alphas speak in clipped sentences. Huh?

The other two contests produced similar results, mixed scores with the rare comment. One judge sticks out in my mind as being outstanding - and not because she gave me an excellent score. She critiqued everything, even those things that weren’t meant to be judged. Like the synopsis. This wonderful lady took the time to go through my synopsis and she gave excellent advice.

The experience wasn’t a total loss. Entering those contests taught me a few valuable lessons. First, your money is better spent on workshops. And second, you will learn more by joining a good critique group than anything else. Which I did.

So why did I jump at the opportunity to be a judge last week? I wanted to see if I could do better.
I read each submission through first, to see if the storyline was clear or confusing. It’s amazing but you really can tell right off the bat if a story is going to be good. Now I know why editors and agents say they’re able to toss something in the slush pile after reading the first paragraph. Didn’t matter. I treated each entry with respect. I felt honored to be trusted with somebody’s baby.

There were a lot of elements to judge, such as Pacing, Dialogue, Characterization and Motivation. I made sure I backed up my number scores with my reasons and some advice. I offered praise along with the criticism. A little sugar makes the criticism more palatable and a writer can learn from what he does right as well as what he does wrong.

I hope I helped somebody. I sure as hell got a lot out of the experience. In fact I think I learned more judging than I did being judged. Would I do it again? YES!

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Maeve said...

I tend to agree with your assessment on entering vs judging contests. I judged six entries in the GH this year and learned a lot from the experience.

Gale Stanley said...

For some reason it's easier to see another's mistakes. I guess we're just too close to our own work. That's why the critique group is so great.

Christine Bell said...

SO true Gale. It is so much easier to see things in an ms you haven't been living in for months. It's like when you first put your perfume on in the morning. You smell that initial burst of pears etc. but then two minutes later, you're immune. With writing, the first time you read something all the adverbs and POV issues jump right out at you. But when you have been writing it, and reading it every day, and your brain fills in the holes because YOU KNOW that the hero felt bad etc. so you just assume you must have written that down somewhere, it's like you just don't see it a lot of the time. I think I always see more when I put it aside for about a month and then look again. Great post!

Gale Stanley said...

So true. When I finish a first draft I set it aside for awhile. When I go back to do edits it's amzing how many mistakes I pick up. A little distance puts things in perspective.

Erika Gilbert said...

Hi Gale, I judged the same contest as you! It was fun, but hard, having that much responsibility!! I'm going to apply what I learned to my own stories.

That's interesting that you got so many different marks from different judges when you entered. Just shows how tastes differ.

Gale Stanley said...

It's a great learning experience. Much more so than being judged. I've had these discussions on the loops and people complain all the time about the wide discrepancies in the judging. Tastes differ but I've heard writers say they were judged differently on formatting. Go figure.

Denise said...

Sorry to be so late to the party but I wanted to read your thoughts about contests. I've squirmed in agony hearing people winning contests and wondering if I should be playing, but a budget's a budget. I agree that conferences, selected classes, writing books & mags, etc. are the far better use of my precious cash. I did finally enter a contest and judged a contest. My experience is as yours. I gained more from being a judge, though I did appreciate the feedback I got on my entry (and no, of course, I didn't place, much less show). So, if anyone's offered a chance to judge, they should do it! If they want to enter contests, like you, they should be very selective.

Denise Golinowski

Gale Stanley said...

The three I entered were the first and the last. But I'll definitely judge again.