Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why I like Judging Writing Contests

I truly enjoy judging writing contests. I'd love to do more of them, but I tend to spend exorbitant amounts of time making comments and suggestions on each entry. Therefore, I must limit the number of contests and entries I judge.

One thing that strikes me in a positive way about contest entries is that a writer had the courage to put him or herself out there, warts and all, for the benefit of their own work. At least I believe most of them do. I imagine a rare few could be looking for praise, which is well-deserved to some degree (see above comment about courage), but everyone must take the sweet with the sour. That's the only way to improve your craft.

The subject of contests is fresh in my mind because I just finished judging one and I'll soon receive entries from the Sandy. Next up will be the Colorado Gold Contest, so I'm sharpening my pencil... uhm, well, I used to use a pencil. I guess now I'm priming my keyboard. :)

Sometimes I see a pattern in a wave of entries that share similar weaknesses. The last contest, however, showed a myriad array of strengths and things that made me go "hm..." I'd have to say the hm factor was probably the biggest issue.

So for the benefit of those considering entering a writing contest in the future, especially the Colorado Gold (because it opens April 1, 2012), there are a few things you want to look out for before clicking the send button.

1. Backstory and character ruminations - Many new writers, and even some veterans, feel it's necessary to relay information about events leading up to where the story begins. If those points are important to understanding what's going on, spread them out and weave them into the action or dialogue. If readers don't know who they're reading about, they're not going to care what happened to them in the past.

2. Solid action without reaction - Oh, dear. A tumble of intense action verbs fill the first few pages and the characters doing them appear rather flat without insight into how they're feeling. Of course you want to keep things moving, but this method of action on top of action actually slows things down because readers don't know what's happening inside the characters' heads. This could be the result of watching too many action movies. I think the writer knows how the characters are feeling, but he or she just forgets to put it on the page.

3. Open ended scenes - A really helpful guideline for writing an effective scene is to give the viewpoint character a goal, and then an obstacle that either prevents him from reaching that goal or changes the outcome. I find a lot of contest entries entertain a slice of life scenario, where the writer indulges in portraying the character in a situation that doesn't really lead anywhere. I think these scenarios can be valuable to the writer as a way to understand the character, but it's not something you share with readers unless it affects the direction of the plot, or a decision the character must make before moving on to the next scene. Make it count.

4. Contrivance - This is a tough one and not always apparent to the writer, who's so enmeshed with his story that he believes he's acting in the character's best interest. But what happens is that in order to force the character in a direction the writer wants him to take, it becomes obvious that the decision or behavior is not the character's; it's the writer's. And therefore, it is contrived. Always be true to your characters. Yes, you're the writer who creates the characters, but the story belongs to them.

5. Nonsensical Plot Resolutions - This comes through in the synopsis. It's true that most of us dislike writing the synopsis (I'm raising my hand), but it's a valuable tool that will show you what is and isn't working in your novel. If you have your character doing a job he has no business doing because there's nothing motivating him to do it, or if you have an ending where the murderer doesn't even make an appearance until the end of the book, or if you leave the story open with no ending at all, I'm afraid you've committed a major story fail. I've given high marks on manuscripts that had the potential to final until the writer committed a story faux pas with their synopsis. Learn to write a good synopsis. It's how you sell books.

I'll admit that I'm a tough judge when it comes to writing contests, but believe me, it's for your own good and the good of your manuscript. I really, really want you to do well. I want more great books to read! :) And I'm also one to recommend a writer to my agent if a contest entry impresses me.

Are you planning to enter a writing contest? What do you hope to gain if you do? What are your expectations?


Angela M. said...

You have great timing with this post! I have four contests lined up for pre-Nationals, all chosen as a way to get more feedback on my manuscripts. I've entered four last year and finaled in two of those, which feels fantastic, but it's the amazing feedback that makes me want to enter. I've only had one score sheet that I knew was garbage. They rest were pure gold, which is why I love RWA contests so much. Other contests don't give you anything back unless you're a winner. With RWA, everyone wins something.

I'll have to make sure my entries don't have any of these weaknesses. In my opinion, the synopsis is the most difficult. I don't have that skill down yet!

Karen Duvall said...

Oh, good, Angela! Thanks!

I've entered a few RWA contests in the past, even won a couple, and they did offer helpful feedback. I judge a few of the RWA chapter contests. I think the Colorado Gold is my all time favorite contest because it's so thorough, and it's a nice option for genre writers who don't write romance. Many of the Gold's finalists and winners have gone on to do great things, like get agents and get published.

Synopsis? Ugh. You and me, both, sister. :) It takes at least 6 drafts for me to get it right.

Thanks for dropping by! :)

Diana Mcc. said...

My goal is to enter two or three contests before the Emerald City contest. I like contests that give good feed back. It helps tighten the MS. I will certainly take your advice on contest entries. Ugh! I don't like synopsis either!

Great post!

melissa said...

This is a great blog from the judges perspective. I've already entered the Sandy, I always enter PPWC, but I've never tried Colorado Gold. Your post gave me things to look for to maximize my entries. It's also good to know that everybody struggles with the dreaded synopsis, six drafts seems like child's play with the amount of time and effort I've spent on wrestling with getting the story down in x number of words. Hope I get a judge like you, fair but tough. I know a well-judged entry makes me a better writer.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Diana! :)

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Melissa!

Regarding the synopsis, I now write them before the book is even written because that's how I'm able sell book ideas to my publisher. It's not necessary for me to write the book first, so trying to come up with a complete story concept with well drawn characters, turning points, black moment, climax and resolution before I've written a word of the book is a huge challenge for me.

The synopsis is only my guideline as I write the book, but I'm not tied to it completely. I can take liberties with the characters and plot as long as I stay with the basic concept.

Chris Devlin said...

I'm nodding my head over and over. I do wish judges could go over an entry, give it back to the contestant with comments, then go over it again before scoring it. Some of the fixes are so simple!

I'm afraid I'm going to have to demur on the Sandies this year--man am I slammed. But I'm going to miss that excitement of the possible that comes with receiving a batch of entries.

Thanks for the thoughts and the tips to potential entrants. It's helpful to me as an entrant even though I've been a judge.

Carolee L. said...

It’s good to read about judging writing contests from a judge’s perspective. I’ve entered two Colorado Gold contests. In 2009 the judges found weaknesses that I addressed. I’d changed one character’s role and never submitted to 2010 because the synopsis revealed a glaring plot error. In 2011, I almost made the finals. After a jillion rewrites, I did back flips when that synopsis received a “sterling” rating. A synopsis is a valuable tool, even though my eyes can’t believe what my fingers just typed! Thank you, Karen, for judging contests. It’s hard work, but it means so much to the writers who enter these contests.

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