Monday, September 24, 2007

The Other Side of Contests: Judging

Maven Jacqueline BarbourWhile I've no plans to enter the Golden Heart this year, I do confess to being something of a chapter contest junkie. In the last fourteen months, I reckon I've entered ten chapter contests and, although I'd promised myself not to enter any more for a while, I have to admit to feeling the tug of both the Emily and Launching a STAR. It's those yummy agent and editor reads in the final rounda that tempt me.

But that brings me to the other side of contests. For each contest entry, there must be a judge. Someone who, presumably, is a reader and writer of romance, preferably of the sub-genre she's judging. Someone with a firm grasp of craft, the ability to be an open-minded and thoughful critic, and the time (and willingness) to do a thorough, careful job. Depending on the contest's criteria, judges may be drawn from published authors (PAN members), PRO members (unpublished authors who have completed a manuscript and submitted it for publication), Golden Heart finalists, and/or chapter contest finalists.

When I entered my first few contests, I suppose I had the judges pretty firmly on a pedestal. I imagined them as infallible, objective arbiters of the quality of my writing. If they liked what I was writing (i.e., I finaled), it meant I was on the right track. If they didn't, it probably meant I should chuck my manuscript in the nearest waste bin and never look back.

Since then, of course, I've come to realize that even an excellent manuscript can fail to make the finals in contest by sheer luck of the draw. Let's face it, even when it comes to published romance novels, not every reader likes every book. The chances that you'll draw one or more judges in a contest who just don't "get" you are quite high. (In one contest I entered recently, my manuscript received one perfect score of 100, a 93, and a 69. To say that last judge didn't respond well to my story would be an understatement, but it also probably just means it's not the story for her, not that the story is crap.)

Still, the ins and outs of being a contest judge remained a mystery to me until earlier this summer, when I volunteered to judge the Celtic Hearts Chapter's Golden Claddagh. Because I'd entered a historical in the same contest, I obviously couldn't judge the category I arguably know best. Instead, I wound up receiving three entries in the FF&P (Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal) cateogry.

I was a little nervous about judging these manuscripts since FF&P is not a sub-genre I normally read, but I decided to give it my best shot and be as fair and open-minded as I possibly could be. The contest scoresheet instructions stated very explicitly that judges must justify any score of 3 or below (out of a maximum of 5). As a result, if I couldn't come up with an objective reason other than "I just don't like it" when I gave a score, I gave the entry a 4. If I loved some aspect of the manuscript, I gave it a 5. Only when I could come up with solid, clear justification for my reaction did I give a score of 3 or less. (And I don't think I gave out any 1's.)

It was hard, time-consuming work, but also rewarding. It gave me a glimpse into what the judges who read, score, and comment on my contest entries have to go through. The amount of time and emotional energy it takes to do the job well is really pretty staggering. Those of us who enter contests should be extremely grateful that there are people out there who are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to read our work and provide us feedback. They provide us an invaluable service and deserve our thanks (and thank you notes are nice, too!).

YOUR TURN: Have you ever judged a contest? Do you plan to? What qualities do you think are most important in a contest judge? And do you send thank you notes to your judges? (Jacqueline hereby admits she didn't used to, but is sending some out very soon.)


MsHellion said...

I've judged once--but I didn't have specific instructions like you. I did write lots of comments about what I thought on the entries though. This was several years ago, so I was more...unbending about rules and such. Now I tend to go for "good story" content and worry less about formatting, the word 'was', and historical inaccuracies on the first page. I at least wouldn't give a failing grade...I'd still probably comment that while I loved her setting in 1305 England, and the fanciful idea that the heroine's bastard child (of whom she is not punished or ostracized about) is eating chocolate--that chocolate actually didn't make it to England until roughly the 1500s. The late 1500s.

Then I'd give them a 3...maybe a 4, because as I said, love the setting of 1305.

It's really better I'm not a judge.

I have entered contests; and I did value the comments most of them gave me. Some were very insightful. Some were slightly bizarre (I had scripture quoted at me, and I wasn't even writing an inspirational). Most of the comments were well-deserved and made my writing better. Many of them made me feel good about my writing.

I do send Thank You Notes as often as I can. I'm not great about mailing things...but I think Thank You Notes are courteous and professional.

Carrie said...

I learned a TON when I started to judge contests. It's amazing what being on the other side of that relationship teaches you!

beverley said...

I won't judge a category I've never read. I was huge into short contemporaries and single titles long enough to know what works even though now I stick to historicals. I've learned to be open minded about a story. Especially GMC and plot stuff. If it's a plot I'm not particularly interested in reading, you don't necessarily get penalized for that. If the story is well written and I can see a reason others might love a story like that, just because it's not a book I would pick up in the store doesn't mean that it's not good. I recently judged a super romance kind of story. Those have really never appealed to me, all that home and hearth stuff. But it was very well written, the prose was lovely and I could see other readers liking it even though it's not my thing. It got my highest score of the six I judged.

Darcy Burke said...

I just judged my first contest and found it to be a very educationl and rewarding experience. I read some great entires and some pretty green entries, but they all showed promise in one way or another. I tried to be as encouraging as possible and hope that they will feel they are on the right track. Anyone courageous enough to enter a contest is in this for the long haul, I think.

lacey kaye said...

I judged one contest. It was everything described above -- especially the educational part. I admit to having a pretty weird taste in my mouth about contests after that. I've entered two since, but one was a milestone event for me and the other was at gunpoint. I'm trying to decide if I want to run my new ms through a wringer, but have yet to make that final decision. New mss go through so many revisions between contest entry and return that it can be more frustrating than helpful to get non-positive feedback.

Or it's sour grapes. Whatever.

Tessa Dare said...

I haven't judged any contests yet. I can imagine, though, that it's a time-consuming task! I do send thank-you notes to my judges, at least I do when we're given instructions on how to send them.

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