Posted by: reneewildes1 | January 5, 2012

From Contestant to Judge

I almost can call this “Confessions of a Contest Slut…er, Diva.” Because I worked my way up through the pre-published ranks by entering RWA writing contests, being critiqued and judged, and eventually finalling, WINNING and getting requests for more. (Leah Hultenschmidt read my stuff a LOT!)You find a contest: (1) you can afford, (2) has a category your particular baby fits into, and (3) has a final judge you’re dying to submit to. The problem w/publishing today is a lot of traditional places are “agent only” or “by request only” which meant you either pitched at a conference or finalled in a contest. With the explosion of epublishing and indie pubs/self-publishing opportunities that’s not as much of a problem, but if you want to hit the big guys, that’s still the drill.

The deal with contests is, you have to FINAL to get in from of that agent/editor judge. Which means you have to make it through the first round of judging by your peers–other authors who have been in your shoes and now man that magical gateway. The first round judges are former contest winners, experienced judges and published authors. I once got judged by Suzanne Brockmann! (Very scary, cool moment…) They not only comment, critique, ask questions & make suggestions but also assign numbered scores and rankings–top three go on to Agent/Editor So-and-So and everyone else goes back to the revisions board.

I’ve never had a contest that wasn’t worth the $$$ critique. It was always interesting to see who picked up on what. So I submitted, and revised, and practiced and learned. And I finally had a slew of requests, as many “no thanks” but at last…a contract offer from Samhain for Duality. And then Hedda’s Sword. And so I hung up my “diva” award and became a published author.

And then a really weird thing happened. I got asked to JUDGE a contest. Huh? Me? What did I know? (According to some emails from my beloved-but-tough editor, some days not so much!) How could I possibly judge someone else’s work? The coordinator was merciless. “You READ, right?” Well, yeah. “You write ROMANCE, right?” Uh-huh. “You have opinions, right?” Umm…maybe? Okay, yeah. “Well then, READ THIS AND SAY WHAT YOU THINK!”

My family will tell you I have opinions about everything. My friends will say I’m not exactly shy. But, to me judging isn’t just telling a writer what you think of her work. THAT’S a critique. (I do those, too.) To me, judges are the guardians of that magical gateway. It’s a big deal to have a major publishing player as the final judge–for most serious contestants, that’s the draw. They want a shot for so-and-so to see how brilliant their stuff is. I know, I was at the head of the “stalking-Leah-Hultenschmidt” camp once upon a time. But those first round judges are the gatekeepers. They block the not-ready and advance the truly-ready so those final judges really do get to see those brilliant stellar masterpieces. I did a stint as a coordinator and I loved hearing my final judge say, “these are really GOOD” and do THREE requests, two partials and a full.

And so it’s a juggling act of critiquing enough to help the author get better, assigning scores to weed out the “there” from the “not quite there yet.” Most contests have three or four first round judges. The lowest score is dropped and not considered, so if you score too low, you’re the one who gets tossed and everyone else’s scores get added together and averaged. Top three scores advance. There are no such things as perfect manuscripts. There’s always strong points and weak points. What I HATED as a contestant were the ones who said, “I love it – it’s perfect.” Liars! No such thing as perfect, and not getting feedback is very frustrating. So the feedback and rationale are crucial. What works and why. What didn’t work and why. Mention what you loved. Mention what stopped you or made you scratch your head. Try to be kind–honest but not mean.

It takes courage to put your stuff out there for someone else to critique and judge. Rejection stings. Having someone NOT like your baby, your blood sweat and tears, can be hard. As a judge you influence, encourage, educate and lead. Have to remember how it was when you first started out. When you were still learning POV and GMC. What’s cool is when you get the same entrant in two different contests and can see suggestions you made in the first time around were followed and you can see the changes the next time around. (Of course the ethical thing to do is to tell the coordinator you’ve got an entry you can’t judge and give it to someone else, but I always READ it, I just didn’t judge it.) Some people have no qualms about judging the same entry over and over, but I always tried NOT to. I figured, they already GOT my opinion, so better to get someone else’s viewpoint.

Judging to me is a moral obligation, a way to return to the industry medium that got me where I am today. I hope to see some of the stories I’ve   enjoyed in print somewhere someday, and I hope my feedback does help. I’m a tough judge, but I think I’m fair. Contests you get feedback. In the regular submission prcess you usually get a form rejection; you know they didn’t like it but they don’t say why. You can’t fix what you don;t know is wrong. Teach and guide–highlight examples of what works (and why) and what doesn’t (and why). Strengths & weaknesses both.

It’s time consuming and there are times when you’re hated as well and loved. The process of code letters and numbers in lieu of names is there for a reason. I’ve cut back on judging b/c of time constraints but there are still a few here and there. I still get excited to open that email & check out the new entries, find those diamonds-in-the-rough (right before I mark it as a cliche! <LOL>) Contests are all about the possibilities, the passion.

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