Back in the day, when I was pursuing traditional publication, I was a self-professed contest slut. Drawn in by the blind critique and the chance to get my work in front of buying editors, I entered roughly thirty RWA-chapter sponsored contests – at a time when you had to print and ship three to five copies of your entry. Let’s not even talk about how much I “invested” in my career by entering contests.
In the end, my efforts – and cash outlay – paid off. I sold the contest entry I’d been parading around for a bit over a year to Harlequin for their Silhouette Special Edition line. Preparing to enter the next contest on the list and receiving my scored entry packet kept me going at a time when my writing was little more than a hobby.
Once I’d achieved Published Author status, I felt inclined to give back to the system that helped me attain my goals. I became a contest judge. For a while, I judged for several contests, but over the last few years, I’ve settled into being a repeat judge for two Texas-based contests. I find scoring on average five entries for two different groups (roughly ten twenty-five page entries per year) is a good balance between giving back and still getting my own work done.
If I’m going to volunteer my time and energy, I want to make sure the entrant and I both get value from the effort. A million years ago, when scored entries were returned via the USPS, I’d anxiously await those thick packets of judges’ comments, hoping and praying that I’d drawn judges who gave feedback rather than simply filling numbers in the scoring blanks.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for each and every judge who took the time to read and score my entries over the years, but I have to own up to being extra grateful to those who put a little extra effort into it. My goal is to be an extra-effort judge!
What does it take to be an extra-effort judge? Basically, the same things it takes to be a good critique partner, but with the blind-judging in a contest context, you need to add a layer of tactfulness that may or may not be required with more thick-skinned, seasoned writers.
- Give the pages your full attention. On average, I find it takes at least an hour to do justice to a 25-page-ish entry. A quick ten-minute skim is not sufficient. In fact, to do the job justice, I think you need to read the entry twice. These pages reflect a writer’s blood, sweat and tears, not to mention a giant chunk of their hearts. Writers at all stages deserve our respect and admiration for having the courage to release their work into the world, especially when they are asking you to point out flaws. If you can’t spare the appropriate time to honor their efforts, then perhaps you should pass on the opportunity to judge.
- Find something to praise. At times, this can be the biggest challenge, but if you look close enough, there’s always something positive to point out. Good spelling. Nifty title. Cool hero’s name. Unique turn-of-phrase. Trust me, if the entry is so weak that you must resort to commenting on the hero’s name, the entrant will be getting battered by negative feedback, and even the teeniest encouragement will be appreciated. Our purpose is to encourage and help, not destroy dreams.
- Be honest. If the heroine is too-stupid-to-live, level with the entrant. If the entry didn’t grab your attention till page 13, say so. If their long, flowy, beautifully-worded sentences dragged down the pacing, then it’s your responsibility to let them know. Often, I find it helps to qualify some of my harshest criticism with “I feel…” or “For me…”
- Don’t feel compelled to point out every shortcoming. If you’re assigned a problematic entry, concentrate on over-arching story issues: a heroine without motivation, an inconceivable plot twist, dialogue that’s stilted. Or if you get a bad speller, highlight a few examples, but don’t exhaust yourself pointing out every misspelled word. On the other side of that coin, don’t feel compelled to find something wrong with an awesome entry. Simply tell them they are publish-ready and to get their entry out there.
- Be polite. Writers are sensitive creatures. Our egos are fragile, especially in the beginning. Often, entrants who have just begun to spread their wings and submit their pages have only been read by friends or family. And nearly everyone’s friends and family will tell them their writing is great – no matter what. It’s our job to be honest and encouraging, but that doesn’t preclude us from taking feelings into account. Yes, to succeed, a writer needs to learn to take negative critique, but it doesn’t need to be delivered rudely. Remember, “You should study comma usage. Quite often, your lack of punctuation changes the meaning of your sentences,” says the same thing as, “Learn comma usage. Your sentences are incoherent!” without bruising egos or deterring someone from following their dreams.
It’s easy to see the giving side of this equation, but what about the getting? Quite often, I learn as much by judging as I hope the entrants learn from my feedback. At this point in my career, I’ve developed habits, both good and bad, and one of the bad habits is a tendency to stay in my writing lane, but reading entries from writers in different stages, from different parts of the word, from different corners of the contemporary romance genre open my thinking. I like getting in on the early stages of feisty characters.
For example, I read one lately where I honestly didn’t like the heroine, but I found her utterly compelling; I wanted to read her story. That’s a complete about-face for me. Typically, I not only have to like my heroines, I tend to take it step further and imbue her with a piece of my own personality, something I can immediately relate to. But to write a main character who starts out as someone I don’t personally like or relate to? Way outside-the-box thinking for me, but it plants a seed that someday may sprout an unconventional character.
Also, I find explaining why something doesn’t work for me to be a great learning experience. My last batch of entries had one riddled with sloppy head-hopping. Now, I cut my reading teeth on Nora Roberts, so I don’t have a problem with head-hopping when done right, but in this particular entry, the head-hopping made it impossible for me to determine who the main character was, even after reading twenty-four pages! In order to provide useful feedback, I had to put myself back in the mindset of a newbie writer and define head-hopping, point it out, and explain why it made the story hard for me to follow. It’s kind of like an intensive back-to-basics training, and I think, no matter where we are on the writing spectrum, we can all benefit from regularly reviewing the basics.
So even though volunteering to judge five contests entries this month cost me a minimum of five hours out of my writing time, I consider that time well spent. Not only am I given the opportunity to turn around and offer help to those climbing behind me, but I also get the chance to pull myself out of my normal process, stretch my imagination and refresh my craft basics.
All in all, a win-win. But in truth, I’m glad my commitment is completed and I can once again focus on me, me, me!
Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.