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?