Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let's be frank ... about contests

This article is for anyone who has ever entered, judged or coordinated a writing contest. Please welcome award-winning writer and contest-coordinator Gina Welborn as she in her own indubitable style tells it like it is.

Every so often, I hear someone mention being discouraged. The shocker? It’s usually because of contest scores and judges. Hey, I’ve worn those flip-flops. Being the kind-hearted gal that I am, I came up with a sweet response.

(1) Quit being so narrow-minded, pig-headed, and stupid, and actually entertain the notion that YOU are NOT RIGHT but the JUDGE IS. Seriously!

What's it gonna hurt to double-check your research on the item the judge questioned or a grammar book on the proper usage of a semi-colon?

Even if you aren’t receptive today, don’t throw away the scoresheet. Recently, I got to looking at some scoresheets from two contests I’d entered my Victorian in last year. Interesting stuff, Maynard. See, some judges make points that seem stupid but are really things entrants should key on. I know you're probably thinking, "Duh!" Oh, dear little pigeon pie, hold on to that "duh."

Each of my judges mentioned paragraphs they didn't feel were necessary. One said, "The maid is such a minor character you don't need to take time to describe what she looks like." Now that "time" I took was two fantabulous sentences—how her clothes drew attention to the pallor of her face and she looked like she was grieving.

Last year I thought, "Duh! It's not a waste of time. She plays a key role in a sub-plot, in the spiritual arc of both lead characters."

This year I thought, “Duh! The judge didn’t NEED that information.”

Take time to pimp your entry. Ruth Logan Herne knows this because she's finaled or won more contests than I've even thought about entering. She says…

"My friend Andrea Wilder (Fearless, Dorchester, 2007)…admits that she tweaked the story to make judges happy. When Alicia Condon (Dorchester) saw the real deal, the story written as it was meant to be, the opening was more fully developed, but Andrea had learned what takes some of us longer to figure out. Lots of judges want that instant fix, that WHAM! GMC that spills the internal organs of the story in full-blown instant fashion. By tweaking her story to give that punch, she ended up winning the contest and ultimately was contracted. If you’ve ever entered Romancing the Tome, that’s a basic example of story punching right there. In five pages you have to sell the judges on your amazingly wonderful opening to get a seat in the finalists’ box. Five pages."

To read more, go to http://seekerville.blogspot.com/search/label/Pimp%20Your%20Contest%20Entry

When you enter the next contest, don't just send in the maximum pages tweaked only so the last page ends on a hook. Copy and paste 10-15 pages more than the contest page limit in to a new Word document. Ask yourself some key questions.

Is this prologue necessary to the judge understanding the first XX pages? Is the problem the heroine is having with this secondary character necessary to the judge understanding the main plot? Is this description of this minor character necessary to the judge seeing this character as needed in the opening pages? And so on. Question every sentence, every freakin’ paragraph.

FORGET ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW OF THE ENTIRE STORY AND HOW EVERY SCENE, EVERY DETAIL PLAYS TOGETHER. It's only about giving the judge the information she needs to focus on the main plot, setting, leads, GMC, etc. Don't leave anything in that could make her think "this isn't needed, slows pace." True, it may really not be necessary. But it could be a case of where the info is only needed if one was reading the entire manuscript and could see how all the threads weave together.

Feel free to assume judges are stupid and clearly layer in GMC in relation to individual story goals. Feel free even to add in some emotional "telling" words in addition to the "showing" paragraphs. Heap on those sensory, setting, and character details.

Ultimately, your goal is to final and to get a full request. That's when you send in your real manuscript.

(2) Quit being so insecure, wishy-washy, and stupid, and actually entertain the notion that YOU are RIGHT and the JUDGE is WRONG. Seriously!

Judges are human. They make errors unintentionally, ignorantly, and despite having good intentions. Like wine, cheese, and many singers, judges get better as they age. I was a TSTL judge the first year I judged RWA contests (fortunately I only judged 3 contests that year). Then Linda Windsor taught me how to judge by teaching me how to critique. Yes, it was quite painful at times.

Some judges, though, are aliens. Really. Had one last year in one of the contest categories I coordinated. You do not know how seriously tempted I was to change some scores and delete comments. Uggh! Having an honor code sometimes sucks.

Realize some judges think they need the answers to GMC internally and externally in the first 15/25/30/50 pages. This can be even worse in inspirationals because judges then want to know exactly what the leads' spiritual struggles are and why. In 25 pages?! Double uggh!

Some judges, however, don't think. You can show the hero resisting the urge to throw something against the wall, but they won’t know what he’s feeling unless you write, "Furious at what he heard yet concerned about not scaring the kids in the room, Bob gripped the team's trophy instead of throwing it against the wall like he really wanted to do ’cause he was a man and men like to throw things." (I am not advising you do this.)

But you say, “It's a contest’s duty to keep out bad judges.” When you're gotten 20+ entries than you anticipated in almost every category, you’re desperate for folks willing to judge. If every published author, every writer who enters contest, every member of each RWA chapter would all judge a RWA chapter contest a year, then there wouldn't be any contests begging last minute for judges.

On the other hand, I know several published authors who REFUSE to judge another contests because of the complaints they hear about judges. Judging a contest means taking your own personal time away from writing. For a published author, that's like a day's pay. And what do they get in return: unpublished writers yakking and cracking about their $*%&@ judges.

That's why I say if you enter contests, you need to go through a judge training session because you should be judging. If you can't find a free course, google "how to judge a RWA contest." There's enough good judging tips on the internet to train/educate yourself. Charlotte Dillion's RWC website is a great place to start your education.

(3) Quit being so sensitive and thin-skinned. Listen, growing a thick-skin is smart. Growing a hard-heart isn't. Keep your heart sensitive so your characters will be too. Learning not to take personally the criticism will prepare you from when you are published.

Oh, and contest coordinators: If the entry deadline hasn’t arrived and the entry isn’t properly formatted or doesn’t end on a hooky COMPLETE sentence, give the entrant a chance to fix. I hate disqualifications for formatting. Yeah, I know they’re mature adults who should have read the rules. Grace goes a long way toward a contest’s reputation.

While we need to keep are hearts tender, we need to stop letting our feelings get us through life. The true test of character is having a great attitude when all is not going well. That happens when we have the right mind-set. Oh, go ahead and vent and whine because we need to purge those negative feelings. Just don't let venting and whining become your mind-set.

"Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did." ~Newt Gingrich

Mind-set: Despite and because of what my contest judges say, I will learn to write better because I'm not satisfied with average.

"The drops of rain make a hole in the stone not by violence but by oft falling." ~Lucretius

Mind-set: While I may not hit my target the first time, eventually I will because I've determined to hit it.

Oh, I forgot…

(4) Remember YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

When you're struggling, share how you're feeling because someone(s) will be there to encourage, uplift, and inspire you to continue on following for your dream.

Touched by Love SC & LC coordinator 2009
Golden Pen Historical coordinator 2009
2008 RWA Maggie inspirational finalist
2007 RWA Golden Heart inspirational finalist
"light-hearted romance, deep-seeking faith"


magolla said...

Wonderful insight, Gina!

Kristen Painter said...

Great post, Gina.

Debra E Marvin said...


Gina, you are brave to point out that the emperor is not wearing anything.

I've gone from 'smarting' at the stinging remarks to learning they are probably right. But not always. I think we know when they are right and maybe that's what hurts more!

The tougher the better!

Will you be my forever contest coordinator?

Donnell said...

Debra, you look too young to be entering contests LOL. Yes, Gina made so much sense, I asked her to expand. She's good at making us smart all around, and what's more at making us think! Thanks, Gina!

Gina Welborn said...

Thanks, ladies, for enjoying my snarking contest opionion.

Me, brave? Deb, sweetie, you've confused me with a certain Kristen Painter. If anyone is naked, she will be the first to notice.

Anyoo, since I can't be Brave Girl, I shall settle for Debra's Forever Contest Coordinator.

Thanks, Donnell, for inviting me to share.

I met that sweet chickie at the RWA national convention in Dallas in 2007. We were waiting for the Golden Heart ceremy rehersals to begin. Then we went on our merrily ways until we hooked up again through Contest Alert.

Great blog, Donnell. You and the other scribes provide some fabulous insight into writing, contesting, and publishing.

Allegra Gray said...

Gina, great post. I'm not big on contests either for entering or judging, but the comment about keeping a "thick skin but a sensitive heart" is great for all aspects of the writing business.
And like the part about grace, too. My 2 favorite NYT bestselling authors are my favorites because they not only write awesome books, they are two of the most gracious ladies I know.


Donna Caubarreaux said...

Great post...I sent the URL to the Contest Deadlines and Contest Judges loops.

Thanks for mentioning, Romancing the Tome contest. We took a break this year, but will be announcing another contest this fall.

Thanks Donnell for bringing Gina back with more astute comments.


Deb said...

Man, I hear what you're saying. I've been both entrant and judge. Hard to say what was more difficult. I think the all-time bottom, though, was the RWA contest I once judged where the entry rules were clear that the submissions must be romance, and I received an entry that was, well, simply smut. I judged it lower for its failure to follow the contest rules. I naturally got a scathing (though indirect) response from the author. "What! You're out of your mind! This piece has WON contests, blah-blah-blah..."

I did respond, once, through my coordinator, because the entrant deserved the courtesy of a reply. I got more nasty blah-blah back. After that I kicked dust and moved on.

You see, it wasn't up to me to set the contest parameters. It was up to the entrant to observe them. This isn't rocket science--it's just playing like grown-ups.

Donnell said...

Thanks, everyone for stopping by ;) Allegra, you could teach us a thing or two about historical facts, English, what have you; and Donna, it's my pleasure to have Gina speak today because she has invaluable, truthful things to say.

Deb, you mention you've been an entrant and a judge, now add coordinator to that mix and deal with said entrant and judge.

I respect immensely what Gina said about coordinators, because let's face it, we're doing this to avoid the slush pile.

She mentioned published authors won't judge; I've been fortunate to have published authors want to judge the Daphne. But one thing I think entrants should recognize is these pubbed authors have been there. They don't just have judges to contend with. They have Amazon, book reviewers, Mrs. Giggles, Smart Bitches, Coffee Time and more ready to evaluate their work.

If we look at this objectively, and intelligently, which is what Gina is suggesting we do. (I'm a ventriloquist I can talk for Gina ;))we can use contests to toughen that outer shell. Reviewers certainly aren't going to mince words.

Mary Marvella said...

Most excellent! When I judge contests I REALLY wish the entrants had read the score sheet to be sure they won't shoot themselves in the foot. I judge by it.

I often advise that an entrant make what she sends me is wonderful and that she waste no sentences or words with stuff I don't NEED to know yet.

If you can send 20 pages, those pages need to make me want to read more. They must not meander and take place over one or two long drawing room scenes with nothing happening if the book is a suspense.

I also point out that I want to feel what the characters feel instead of seeing it.

Gina Welborn said...

Let me add that when I said pubbed authors don't judge, that's a generic comment. I know many do and I'm utterly thankful for their insight and wisdom.

When I wrote that line, I was thinking of a particular pubbed author who has vocally admitted that she won't judge ever again because of whiny diva entrants.

Many pubbed authors do judge. Just consider that those that don't, there is a reason. I suspect the blame rests a lot on entrants who publically blast their judges.

Deb, about that smut entry...

I judged an entry last night that you'd probably define as smut. It was a historical in which, based on entry pages alone, I got the impression the story was more about the sexual adventure/journey of the lead characters than it was about finding the person/thing that needed finding.

The entrant did not include a total manuscript word count OR a genre OR a target publisher.

Now how the heck was I suppose to answer the question "Is the potential for conflict enough to sustain word count?" Since the entrant didn't include the optional synopsis, I had no idea how the mystery plotline balance with the sexual plotline.

I scored as best I could. Later in the comments section, I advised the entrant to include total ms word count, genre/sub-genre, and target publisher/line in her header.

Why contests don't require this, I have no freakin' idea. We advised entrants do so in this year's Touched by Love, yet almost half of the entries arrived with only title and either word count or genre. A couple with title only.

I say this becuase, odds are, Deb, if you knew that entry was a historical of 85K words targeted to Dorchester who likes dark and sexy novels, you'd have viewed the story differently.

Gotta take care of a kid. Then I'll finish my thought.

Teri Wilson, Romancing the pet lover's soul said...

Excellent post Gina. Everyone who enters contests really, really needs to judge. It helps immensely with preparing your own entries. The hook - the immediate feeling of being sucked into the story - is so important. I judged 10 romantic suspense entries recently, and by the time I was finished I was weary of the bodies piling up everywhere. If the entry didn't have clever humor or amazing chemistry between the hero and heroine I was bored to death.

What a good suggestion to tailor your entry specifically for a contest. Thanks for the awesome insight!

Blessings, Teri

Gina Welborn said...

Okay, Deb, back to my trail of thought.

Last summer I judged an entry that had some HQN extra steamy line listed as target pubisher. Well, I asked around in the Golden Network for some insight into the line.

Apparently, novels are first person accounts of a heroine and her sexual journey. The plot centered on her sexual journey.

When I got to thinking about the target line, I realized some of the scoresheet questions weren't applicable. Not even a published book from that line would have scored well on those questions.

So I went outside the scoresheet judging box. I gave the entrant a 5 on those questions BUT explained that I didn't think she did a great job with that element. No, instead based on learning about her target publisher, I realized that element DID NOT MATTER.

Not sure how the coordinators felt about my doing that. Oh well.

Ended up the entry had three scores: 90, 70-ish, 60-ish.

While my score was clearly not in line with the other judges', I fine with it. DIdn't get a thank you from the entrant, though.

Anyhoo, I think it's important for judges to read the entry and evalute it based on the word count, sub-genre, and target publisher.

HINT HINT HINT Just because a contest doens't ask for that info in a header, doen't mean you can't include it.

I think it's also important that judges don't deduct point for not applicable scoreheet questions.

I have a scoresheet from the first RWA chapter contest I entered where the judge gave me a BIG FAT ZERO on the secondaries question. Apparently she felt since none were in my entry pages, then she couldn't give me any points whatsoever.

I've judged contests that say if a question isn't applicable (let's say ones on the hero and the hero doens't appear in the entry), then give 3s. The average scores.

I don't get it. Nor will I follow their advice. Why should I penalize the entrant for NA questions. I give 5s and tell the entrant, "hey, i'm not going to deduct points here, but you may want to reconsider entering a contest where the scoresheet asks about a hero and your entry doesn't have him in it."

Gina Welborn said...

Mary, you've made an excellent point about meandering scenes.

The entry I judged this morning at 3 am (don't ask) had the most utterly meandering opening scene. The hero and his friend sat and talked about the plot. Five or six pages of sheer exposition done thorough dialogue.

I told the entrant, "Cut it because the scene has no action, no tension, no purpose. Begin with the first scene of the heroine's pov and layer in that exposition information as needed in hero's pov." Odds are the info is arleady there.

Gotta let my child in the front door.

Gina Welborn said...

Oh, I forgot to add, "Mary, you sound like a great judge!"

Thanks, Teri, for the comment. In that entry I judged at 3am, I really could have used a dead body. Excellently written entry. Just it was all talk and no action. Heroine shoudl have been in jeapordy by the end of the entry. Nope. She was too busy making moon eyes at the hero.

So much potential in that story if the writer would quit "telling" the story and let the story happen.

Gotta love a dead body. Or guns. Knives. Rabid dog chasing unfed cat which is pretty stupid because the cat is so skinny she's got no meat on her bones and her brain is rather pea-sized.

lisekimhorton said...

Most excellent and straightfoward blog. And reiterated things I have said many times about the whining about contest scoring. First, I've entered several contests myself, as well as judged nearly a dozen AND coordinated them. I'm coming at the discussion from both sides. Had some great judges who helped me a lot. Had a couple of winners who might want to hire bodyguards if they are going to continue to judge contests with such a mean-spirited attitude. Bottom line - RWA contest judges are not, for the most part, professional editors. They get some things write, express themselves well, and sometimes they sound like boogers who don't know a contraction from a contraceptive. Take it for what it is worth - admit (as you so strongly argue), that you might not be perfect and that your entry needs work, and, if you can't take the heat ... stay out of the contest.

Ellen said...

Hi Gina!
Great advice---each and every single tidbit. Thanks so much!

Gina Welborn said...

Bottom line - RWA contest judges are not, for the most part, professional editors.

Excellently said, Lise.

Thanks for stopping by, Ellen!

Misty Evans said...

Gina, I enjoyed your post. You sound like a down-to-earth and funny person.

I rarely enter contests, but I often get the same feeling when I submit to my editor. Some times the comments sting, but I've learned she's (almost) always right. LOL.

Thanks for sharing with us today!

Carolyn Matkowsky said...

Great post. I've judged contests, coordinated them, entered them. You gave my some new insights. And everything you say is so true. Thanks.

Gina Welborn said...

Thanks, Misty and Carolyn! I'm glad you could stop by and chat.

I used to be one of those tender-skinned writers. Sometimes I still think I am. My entry didn't final in the GH this year, and I'm not to excited to see the scores. Part of me would just rather not no.

Oh, and great book jacket, Misty!

Donnell said...

Thanks very much to Gina Welborn for sharing her thoughts with us and for everyone who dropped by. Contests are, and continue to be a big mystery, out there. To coin Gina's phrase.... Anyhoooo, no doubt we'll keep entering until we get "The Call." Happy writing, everyone!

Vince said...

I would like to suggest a Craftsmanship Contest.

In this contest the contestant enters 25-30 pages designed to best fulfill the creative requirements of the proposed novel. The judges then judge the entry based on how well the entry meets those goals.

To insure realistic judging criteria, each contestant would provide a list of goals that the entry was intended to achieve. Rather than a synopsis, or in addition to a synopsis, the contestant would provide a list or a narrative description of why certain things were attempted in the entry. The object of the contest would not be to please the judges or to slant the writing to a specific contest’s score sheet requirements. The goal would be directed towards writing the best foundation for a competent publishable romance.

The scoring could be a combination of three elements;

1) how ambitious were the goals,
2) how well were the goals executed,
3) what was the artistic merit of the work.

Total these three scores for the final score.

This could be like bull riding judging: how well did the rider ride, how long did the rider ride, and how tough was the bull to ride.

I think this type of contest would best reflect one’s ability to produce acceptable published work. It would also be like examining the health of someone’s heart while it is still in the body and functioning rather than taking the heart out of the body and judging it against anatomical drawings.

Well it’s an idea.


Donnell said...

Vince, I imagine the first contest with different guidelines had to start somewhere. If editors and agents were asking for the type of criteria you suggest, there would be a contest. Perhaps that's the place to start -- see if a publisher likes the idea? Thanks for stopping by!

jenness said...

Good post, Gina! Thanks for sharing. :-) (From a newbie contest judge who is trying not to be scared to death.)

Theresa said...

GREAT post and just what I needed to hear. I coordinate The Sandy (www.thesandy.com) and I've had a big problem with over empathizing with the entrant. My heart breaks for those who have big score differences or those who barely miss finailing, or those newbies who get very low scores, yet you are TOTALLY right. They need to grow a thicker skin--NOT a hard heart!

I've entered dozens of contests, finaled in a bunch and won a few. In fact my latest book, THE ROAD BETWEEN, is a quarter finalist in Amazons contest, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001UG39DS, It made the top 500 out of thousands. And at this stage, it's open for free downloads and reviews--from strangers. First 19 pages--just like The Sandy--only without the benefit of a synopsis for folks to see where the plot is going. I'm pleased with my reviews thus far, but this is the big time and ya gotta develop a strong ego.

Several other great points you made: 1) Judges are human, they do their best. 2) We TRY to weed out the "bad" ones, but I concentrate on the ones who just don't understand tact. 3) And the judges are NOT paid. They spend a great deal of time judging just because they want to help and give back.

I could go on and on, but would much rather have permission to post this article on The Sandy website, so next year all contest entrants can be a little better informed!

PS, We've been very blessed in that it is a very very rare author who is unhappy with comments made by any of our judges--we have grateful authors entering The Sandy, and that's what keeps me coordinating and judging year after year.

Lisa said...

Bravo!! Excellent article. I support every point you made, and I can speak from personal contest experience, both on the entrant and judge side of things.

Carolyn R Domini, Pisces, Water Snake in the Chinese zodiac said...

Interesting stuff. While I agree about the divide between what judges and agents look for, I nevertheless disagree (I think) with your idea to write one version for the judges, another for the agent or editor who asks for the full ms. Won't that agent/editor expect to see more of what she requested? I would think that answer is, "Yes."
Bottom line for me is: The criteria for the hoops we jump through must come from within ourselves as educated writers. And I do mean, "educated." After 10 years of various online courses, a couple of them with instructors of renown, the study of the writing craft by the best in the business, and a professional critique group, there comes a point where you either take 'em with you or you don't.
Note: This comes from someone who consistently requires a discrepency judge. I'm the one who gets the 97/97/46 in every contest. :) What I've learned? My book probably doesn't belong in the romance genre at all. The last judge (who liked it) mentioned that in her opinion, the story crosses commercial/literary lines. Yep, yep, got to that place of thinking, myself. The ms. just doesn't belong in romance contests. So it's straight querying now for me.
But I do appreciate all the points you made. If my book strictly fit the genre, I'd probably use your ideas here.

Audra Harders said...

Welcome Gina! OMG, miss a couple days and look who visited the Scribes!

Great post with wonderful insight. Isn't it funny how you have to learn to write a novel and learn to write a contest entry? You are so right about some judges just not seeing the forest for the trees.

Judges! Step back and inhale the fragrance of the entry, not just a cold, hard whiff!

Great advice as we move into the prime contest season, Gina. Thanks!!!

Tina M. Russo said...

Terrific post Gina. And thanks for the Seekerville link pimp.

Helen Hardt said...

Donnell and Gina, I'm sorry to be late to the party, but I want to comment anyway. This was a wonderful and insightful post. I've been both an entrant and a judge and I've gotten a lot out of both. I can't imagine being a coordinator though!