Before I get started I want to tell you about the two extraordinary writers joining me on this blog. Kari Lee Townsend has two 3 book deals right now, both sold on proposal. She writes Middle Grade for Jabberwocky (SourceBooks) and mystery for Berkley Prime Crime. Cassy Pickard writes mystery and romantic suspense, and I have no doubt this will be her year. Give them a warm welcome when they make their official appearances.
Now on to what I want to talk about. Can you remember the first time you entered a contest? If you're like me, you had no idea what head hopping was. You wrote the story as it unfolded in your own head. Speaking for myself, with each contest I entered, I learned something new about the craft of writing. Granted, a lot of contest judges took their jobs too seriously and felt like it was their duty to discourage me from ever writing again, but mostly, I received invaluable constructive criticism. Then there was this one judge whose comment was so absolutely ridiculous that I still laugh when I think about it. I write mystery/adventure. Right in the middle of a high-drama kidnap scene in a foreign country where the bad guys have thrown my heroine into the back of the van and are racing away from the police at a high rate of speed, this judge downscores me because I didn't tell her if the van had windows.
I kept saying I was going to quit entering contests because I always had one or two judges who absolutely loved my voice and one who hated me. Consequently, I never finaled. Part of the reason for the mixed reviews was the fact that I always entered romance contests with manuscripts that I now know are nowhere near being "romance" despite having tender love affairs and happy endings.
The judges who scored me really low were usually following the score sheets (that's another whole blog) with a black or white interpretation. I write gray. My hero and heroine rarely meet in the first chapter. My better scores came from judges who I can only assume saw something in the voice and the writing and modified the scores.
Because I had such mixed reviews on my entries, I am a much more tolerant judge myself. I look for writing that makes me sad when the pages end. I've even been known to tell a few entrants I wish I had the full manuscript. But no matter whether I score the entry high or low, I usually take something away with me. After reading an entry where most of the sentences start with he/she bullet points, I always go back and make sure I vary my own sentence beginnings. And I can't tell you how many great stories I've read that have no hook - anywhere. It makes me work even harder to end all my scenes with a good one.
Although judging contests can be a real time drain, I will continue to look at it as a free craft lesson. Plus, it's a good way for me to pay it forward for all the great advice I've ever received from other authors. It's hard hearing someone say your baby is ugly, but after a week or so, I usually take a second look and see if there's any merit to the critique. If there is, it was worth the $25 bucks. If not, I light a match to it and work harder.
I'm curious if anyone out there feels the way I do about judging contests. If you have any great stories, I'd love to hear them. I just finished judging a GH entry. It started with way too many choppy sentences, and I was convinced I would score it low. By the time I finished the excerpt, I was laughing so hard, I was crying. I didn't score it low, believe me. I only wish I could tell the author to tone down the choppy sentences. Like everything else, moderation is the key.