Monday, April 11, 2011

I'll Be the Judge (but You Could Be, Too!)

Put you're writing to the test.
Are you doing what you
need to do in order to
win that contest?
Over the past two years, I've been privileged enough to have helped judge both national and local literary contests. Literary contests are an undertaking that I believe every writer should experience on both sides of the fence. In a previous post, I shared my know-how when it comes to entering literary contests in "To Enter or not to Enter:  The Pros and Cons of Literary Contests." If you haven't read that post, then I encourage you to do so. Today's article will deal with the other side of that monster -- judging a literary contest.

Since we are currently in the throes of contest season, I thought this article would be beneficial to those of you out there who might be considering entering a contest. Whether you're a newbie at having your work judged, or you're a seasoned pro who has been at this for years, I believe there are a few suggestions that we could all find useful. As a judge, I've seen quite an array of manuscripts that range from well written, well plotted storylines, to aimless ramblings with little to no direction thrown on the page. So let's have a little guidance, shall we? What are those judges really looking for? What are the pitfalls that many writers tend to fall into? And how can you, my anxious writing friend, avoid a dreadful critique -- one that probably cost you a pretty penny to obtain. Here's what you can expect:

  1. Follow the Rules ~ As a judge, nothing chaps my hide more than receiving an entry where the author thinks he/she is above the rules. I've seen manuscripts with teeny-tiny margins, excessively long synopses (a seven-page synopsis does not make for a happy judge), manuscripts that go well over the page number count for submission, funky fonts, etc. You name it, it's out there being turned in as "quality" work. I've actually deducted points when an author doesn't follow the rules. If he can't do it for a contest, what makes him think he can get away with thumbing his nose when it comes to submitting to an agent? Stick to the contest rules, plain and simple.
  2. Synopsis ~ The. Bane. Of. Any. Writers. Existence! Yes, the synopsis is incredibly hard to write, but that doesn't mean the author should gloss over the whole plot and write a happy ending on the last line. First, know your genre and make sure you write the synopsis geared towards your target audience. Jump right into the plot of the story, make it flow, hit the best highlights, and give away the ending. Don't make your story one big mystery to figure out (that is, unless it's in the mystery category and then revelation is up for debate). As the judge, I need to know if the plot is even working, or perhaps it's not original enough, or perhaps it's not even plausible. And one last bit of advice with your synopsis (and some of you out there might argue with me on this one) -- Don't start with the words "My story is about . . . " or something similar. Your synopsis has to read like its own story. Leave all the introductory wording for your query letter.
  3. Grammar and Mechanics ~ It always surprises me when I get an entry full of glaring grammar, formatting, punctuation, and verb tense mistakes. In my opinion, this is the one element where a writer can easily make the manuscript look professional. Get a useful, to the point, grammar guide, like Grammar for Dummies and have it next to you as you polish those 20-30 manuscript pages. You'll be glad you did.
  4. Plot Structure and Pacing ~ After perusing countless manuscripts, the one bit of advice that I think any author should know when it comes to plot and storyline is originality. So, your main characters have "painful pasts" they are running from. Or perhaps one character inevitably ends up falling in love with another. Or they all end up in happy land in the end. But why? Why do these painful pasts mark your characters and how do these pasts affect them? What series of events causes them to meet and fall in love? I only ask that you not put them in happy land in the end unless there has been some fantastic crisis or obstacle they have overcome and we, the readers, really need that happy ending. As to pacing, don't bog down your first few pages with backstory. Most entries I judge generally lose me within the first few pages because the author is too busy explaining the grandfather or the mother-in-law's history. Start with some sort of crisis and keep the action moving from then on out.
  5. Characters and Dialogue ~ Your characters so desperately want to be loved by the reader! What makes your main character pop off the page and sets him/her apart from all the others? Make sure your MC has a great, compelling backstory, but please, don't dump that backstory into the first ten pages. Give each one of them some sort of specific trait or characteristic, but don't make it clichéd. Even the minor characters. Avoid creating every secretary to look cheap with big boobs and blonde hair or every cop seem crooked. Give them variety. Same goes for the dialogue. Not only do your characters want to be loved, but they also want to be heard (but not sound ridiculous when they open their mouths to speak). Each one is unique, so really think about the dialogue and how your main character would speak. Does she have an accent? Is she educated? Does she use a certain dialogue line that is hers and hers alone? Make it believable, and please, please use dialogue tags properly. And remember, your dialogue must move the story along in a meaningful way. Avoid writing random conversations -- make them have a point in the story.
  6. Point of View ~ You wouldn't think this would be a tricky element to work with, but I have to admit (and I've been guilty of this at times as well) that many new writers run right off the tracks with POV. Don't head hop, which basically means you are in and out of every characters head without even letting the reader know. Distinguish when you plan to change POV (usually with the three asterisks [***] the universal way to separate POV and scenes, or by simply starting a new chapter). When in one character's head, make sure she isn't noticing things about herself unless there is a mirror right in front of her (ex: "she had reddened eyes" or "a sinister smile crept onto his face"). How do they know if their eyes or red or if their smile is perceived as sinister? Keep POV where it needs to be.
You might be wondering what I mean by saying you could be a judge, too. I recently had someone ask me how an unpublished writer is allowed to judge contests. Simple -- win or place in the contest. Most contests are surprisingly very selective in who they choose as judges. I'm a preliminary reader (meaning I don't judge the final round, except in one contest I did) and my job is to weed out the manuscripts that need work and I pass the ones that work on the page onto the final judge (usually a published author or an agent or editor). It can be both a humbling and aggravating experience. Here are three ways to get on the judging side:
    • Ask around at just about any local writing venue you might know. You'd be surprised at how many local writing contests are out there. 
    • Contact your contest chair at your local writer's group. 
    • Place or win in an annual contest that is usually scouting the winners for preliminary round judges.
    My advice is to enter contests (But please, only the ones that work for your genre. Don't force a square peg into a round hole!) and, if at all possible, taste the judging side of writing for yourself as well. You will most certainly be able to relate to others out there who are struggling through the process as much as you are.

    How about for you? Have you ever sat on the judging side of the fence? If so, what was your experience like?

    Hop on over to The Random Book Review and take a look at my read for this week!


    1. A very interesting subject and post!

      I've been considering entering a contest this year (haven't decided yet). So it is good to know what the judges will be paying attention to.

      I've been hesitant to participate in contests in general because I didn't see much of a benefit, and wanted to spend the money in conferences ;) But I see that winning those two contests has been benefitial to you and not only to be able to mention them in your query letters. I guess this gives you a little taste of what agents and editors must feel like when getting submissions :-)

      Thanks for the helpful tips!

    2. That's a great insider's view, thanks. I haven't done many contests (aside from the one at Amazon), but I'll have to look into more!

    3. I could see how judging a contest like this would really help with one's own writing. Great post.

    4. In the past, I have done my share of judging online literary contests, and I agree with all your rules. Judging other people materials can be a grueling, time-consuming and painful business.

      Sister Mary, Mary thanks for an insightful post I have a question for you. What would you say is the difference between an agent reading a query letter and a literary contest judge performing a similar task?

    5. What a great compendium of excellent tips! Good writing advice in general, as well as contest-entering advice.

      Violante asks an excellent question. It seems those two things might be very similar; so maybe you've got a sense of what it's like to be an agent, Mary Mary!

    6. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post! It seems Lorena and Violante have similar questions. I guess you could say reading the first thirty pages of one's manuscript, plus the synopsis, is a taste of what an agent goes through. It's easy to see why an agent gets frustrated with many of the queries and partials they receive. The worst part of judging a literary contest, for me anyway, is the synopsis. Nine times out of ten the author makes a complete mess of the story (and yes, I actually received a seven page synopsis once, which went well over the contest limits). And then it can be surprising to read the manuscript and realize that it's actually a good story. I think many writers want to put everything and the kitchen sink in a synopsis, but that's just not possible, especially if the contest requests a one-page synopsis. My suggestion is to really pare the story down to one, maybe two, character POVs (meaning, let us see the flow of the synopsis from only that character and not twenty others) and only hit the most important elements, and make sure you're clear about those elements. My example above, with "painful pasts," only makes for a very fuzzy storyline. How does the reader know what makes a character tick if the author gives no insight in the synopsis? It's probably one of the most important elements of your contest entry, so make it count!

    7. I honestly cannot understand how people can submit a story to a competition WITHOUT proof-reading ;)

    8. Fantastic post. I've never judged but I have sorted boxes full of entries and it's amazing the variation in the presentation of manuscripts. It surprised me how often people did something outside the guidelines.

    9. I couldn't agree with you more, Trisha! I don't understand the entries that are riddled with errors. Only send out your very best work!

      Lynda, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think it's fascinating to see how many writers enter contests. Many contests don't give away the number count in the end, but when you place in one and learn that you're in the top three out of a hundred or so entries, it's a fantastic feeling!

    10. You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Creative Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

      BTW, I am your newest follower.
      I invite you to follow me as we have a lot in common.

      My blog specialize in helping writers get published by learning from agents, editors and authors who I interview.
      Tomorrow, I am having a literary agent on my blog as a special guest. She has some great tips for authors.

      Take care and have a nice day :-)
      Go to and pick up your award.

    11. Thanks for stopping by Deirdra and thank you for the award! I'll be sure to check out your blog.


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