Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ten Laws of Random Observations About Writing Contests

Having just completed coordinating the preliminary round of the Original Golden Opportunity contest, run by my local RWA chapter, I thought I'd try to come up with a list of ten commandments, no, laws no... more like random observations about writing contests.


  1. The entrants with the most elaborate pseudonyms, or who go to the greatest lengths to use only their pseudonyms, are invariably the least experienced and will not do well in the contest. Clearly there are exceptions to this. And I really don't mean to mock. I think back to how choosing a pseudonym was pretty dang high on my priority list when I started writing, cough, seven years ago. Ah, what a naive fool I was. (Okay, now I am mocking, but I'm mocking myself, too, so that makes it okay. Right?)

  2. The category that produces the most erratic scores and the most violent reactions from both entrants and judges is paranormal. I think it's partly because some of the premises are "out there" and not to everyone's taste. One person's "cool" or "dark" is another person's "ick" or "gross". But I also think there are a lot of moderately crazy people writing in that genre. (Me included.)

  3. The judges who were the most keen to judge and were the most insistent that they'd be done on time, when you politely reminded them of the deadline, are the ones who disappear from the face of the planet the second the deadline arrives, never to be heard from again. A curse on you all!!!!

  4. Some judges will clearly not have read a word of the judges' training. Some will have read it, but clearly not have understood much. (hopefully just a few of each)

  5. Entrants (or judges) who don't know how to convert a file to .rtf, or put in a header, or save a file under a different filename, or attach a file to an e-mail, or use paypal, etc... Are likely not to be very experienced writers (or judges). Not that being technically adept and writing necessarily go hand in hand... but if you've had any experience as a writer, if you've ever submitted anything, if you've even exchanged pages with another writer for critique, you've already had to figure this shit out.

  6. The finalists are, by in large, the most experienced, the most polite, the most thoughtful, and the most organized entrants in terms of dealing with the coordinator -- but some finalists turn into Diva Monsters expecting you to be at their beck and call 24/7 once they final, as if you don't have 25 other finalists revising their entries to deal with, too. Not to mention your own life to live. (No Diva Monsters yet this year! Knock on wood. That one was an observation from last year.)

  7. Some people should think before they press send. Each year, I get a few e-mails from contestants who did not do well, who would've been so much better off if they'd taken a day to cool off before telling me how stupid our judges are...

  8. Some people cannot follow instructions no matter how you word them. (Entrants and judges.)

  9. Every year, some great entries fail to final... but, in general, most entries that final are worthy. (But invariably a one or two finalists receive terrible scores from the judge you personally think is the "most competent" of the three judges they were assigned.)

    And now for my potentially controversial Observation #10...

  10. Judges closest to publication, either who've just sold or are on the cusp of getting that first contract, tend to be the harshest critics.
    I haven't done a scientific analysis of this. But when I started coordinating contests, and therefore reading a lot of score sheets, I started to take a harder look at my own scoring and how tough I was being at times. Here's my rough categorization of judges (totally, TOTALLY generalizing -- and if you judged a contest I coordinated, and think I mean you? I don't. Really.**)

    • The least experienced writers (on balance) give the highest scores. "Hey, this is as good as my stuff, or better, so it must be great!" Either that, or they mark everyone down for the same things--typically whatever lesson they've just mastered in their own writing--whether it's a problem in the entry or not. Frankly, I prefer these judges to the next type of judge.
    • Some writers, possibly new, possibly who've been at it for a while, but who either haven't worked very hard at their craft, or simply just don't get it, but THINK they know a lot... make a total mess of scoring. They call someone out for "telling" when the examples given sound like "showing" to me. They "correct" correct grammar. They mark entrants down for not describing how something smells on every page. They don't recognize when an entry's cool, or different, because it breaks some "rule" they think needs to be followed. They simply, IMHO, frak it all up.
    • Seasoned, multi-published authors tend to (usually) be the most fair and realistic. "This is such a cool idea, or such a strong voice, I need to encourage this writer, and give it a really high score," or "This was clean, well-written, and showed skill, but had no spark. I'll give it a good score, but not a top score", or "this poor writer is so clearly a beginner, I cannot crush them. I'll find something nice to say, give it a lowish but not mean score, and move on. Maybe give a few examples of problems and offer a few tips or good craft books, if I have time."
    • Then there are the judges right on the cusp of selling, the ones who are talented and skilled themselves and know enough to separate the great from the good from the ugly. But they might be frustrated they haven't sold yet, and/or are still stinging from bad critiques of their own work in contests. These judges, in my experience, can sometimes be kinda cruel.
      Observing this in other judges gave me pause. Made me realize I'd been guilty of that in the past. Made me work to be kinder, while still telling the truth, on the really weak entries. Made me decide that giving a score below 50% isn't necessary. Below 90% they aren't going to final in most contests, so why rub their nose in the dirt? (But I admit I still have trouble finding nice things to say about weak entries...)
Finally, while I know contests are imperfect and a bit of a crap shoot in terms of which judges you get assigned (and they'd only be completely fair if all entries in a category got the exact same judges, and that's simply not possible, and even then, entrants would be hostage to those judges' likes and dislikes)... Phew. Even, given all that, I have come to believe that contests mirror the publishing business better than most people think.

Generally, skilled writing and storytelling triumphs over the weak, but, just as in "real life", not always. It's all so subjective, and luck is involved. Again, just like subjectivity and luck affect "real life" publishing.

Ultimately, it all comes down to: did the judge (or editor) love what you wrote. And love is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.

** I especially don't mean you, Bitch. Ignore this if you haven't seen 500 Days of Summer. If you have -- wasn't it great???


Sinead M said...

Great, great observattions, by at least a two time contest co-ordinator, or is it three?

Contests are subjective, but everything about this industry is, and they are a great way, of, if nothing else, developing a thick skin.
And to get and stay published, most of us will need a thick skin and the ability to take and evaluate criticism of our work.

Only rank amateurs would send a negative note to their judge

Kimber Chin said...

Wonderful observations.
You did an amazing job, Maureen.
I was very impressed.

I think #3 is a universal law. You want something done, give it to a busy person. Busy people don't have time to ask a million questions or nag. They deal with projects as they get them.

Looking at how I judged vs other judges (a great tool, thank you), I was much tougher on the solid entries with no spark. I think it is easier to firm up a loose piece of writing with spark than insert spark into tight writing. And, in single title (what I was judging), selling without spark is pretty darn impossible.

Sinead, on the flipside, most of the judges are experienced writers. They already have rhino skin (mine is bullet proof) so negative notes wouldn't bother them as much.

Plus I'd rather they send the negative notes to me (who will advise them that they may not wish to do that) than to agents, editors or publishers.

Kristen Painter said...

Great post. And so sadly true in so many places. I'm a tough judge, but I have no problems praising good writing and great storytelling. I just don't see enough of it.

December said...

I totally agree with your observations. its just nice to hear it reinforced from the Judging side, as opposed to the entry side!

Eileen said...

I was never a big contest enterer before I was published, but I have heard horror stories from friends that do enter contests! That one judge who "gets" your work and can help you see your strengths and maybe a place or two to improve it is worth his or her weight in rubies, though.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Great post, Maureen. I haven't entered a lot of contests because I am so totally totally unorganized and lazy, but because you two are my friends and I have to have people to drink with I am always freaking judging contests. It's subjective and asking a bunch of people to pick the best book in a catagory is ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. To get heated up about it either as an entrant or a judge is waste of time and energy.

Kimber Chin said...


That's why I think the TRW contest is so great. Placing or winning is really only a bonus. The key benefit is the feedback. I know that the feedback from my previous entries helped me SO much. Heck, Invisible after vs before the TRW contest feedback was a completely different book.

Well worth the entry fee.

Milo said...

So... Howdy. Been reading your posts and have developed a crush on at least two of y'all. Won't say which. That'd be telling. Anyway as you might surmise, I am a dude. And THIS dude (believe it!) is looking to break into the romance writing gig. I belong to no assns or critique groups, and romantic fiction isn't something my pals and I chat about. So when I saw your little koffee klatch (IRISH coffee, at that) I thought I would say hello. Wondered if maybe y'all would let me ask a question now and then or hoped you might throw some suggestions at me. Thanks! I'll check back regularly. -Milo (mcvthree at yahoo dot com)

Maureen McGowan said...

Hey, Milo! Thanks for stopping by!

If you're serious about writing romance, I would recommend joining RWA. Yes, there are boys there, too. Sure, they're outnumbered, but there are more than you might think.

Then once you've joined RWA, find the local chapter where ever it is you live. You'll learn so much.

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, and Milo. Absolutely ask questions.

It'll fuel topics. Plus, now we know about the secret crush situation, we'll all be competing to answer.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Hey! Welcome Milo! Ask lots of questions and I too have a crush on two of us -- I won't say who either. It will be our secret....

Milo said...

Thanks for the welcome, ladies. I'm studying the Harlequin lines trying to choose one so I can tailor a story. I am interested in the Supers because the heroes aren't limited to billionaire A-holes with secret hearts of gold, and SR accept a little suspense, and other varieties, and there's room for subbies and 2ndary characters. But WANDA (wonderful as she may be) has a bug up her about revisions. And I'm not certain about their commitment to their authors' next book. OTOH, I like Desires because 1) they're shorter, less complicated and 2) Diana Ventimiglia says she WANTS 3-5 books per year from an author, which is terrific, if true.

So, say I shoot for I gonna get stuck for three years doing revisions and then get shot down? And does Desire really make it easier for an author to sign a multi-book? And what happens to the secondary publication rights for category books once their month is up and they're yanked from the shelves. And does anybody have suggestion for self promotion? And FINALLY, how big a problem am i likely to have as a DW3 (Dude Who Writes as a Woman) with regard to promoting my own books?

Thanks for letting me spout!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Hey Milo! Looking at the lines is the best place to start and I would say your decision for which to write for has to be based on which line you could see yourself writing multiple books for. Do your ideas have subplots? Suspense? Hot sex?

Trying to choose a line based on how fast you can get published is ridiculous. You're only going to be disappointed because it takes a long freaking time. There are going to be revisions no matter what - every editor is going to ask for them. Wanda is not the exception to the rule. And revisions are actually a gift - it's taken me sometime to come to this conclusion, but it's true. Revisions=gift.
All the lines want to buy an author - not a book - Supers want three books a year from thier writers. Five books a year for Desire??? Wow. I guess if you can do it - do it!
but any decision starting out that isn't based on which line you like the best, or which line your writing fits in - is only going to come back to bite you in the butt.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...