Monday, September 17, 2012

Who Am I To Judge?

I've rarely entered contests and until last year, had never volunteered to judge one. Seriously. Who am I to judge another author's work? I don’t even feel qualified to write reviews and I've been reading Romance for more than 25 years. But I bit the bullet and judged the Golden Heart this past winter.

The best part about judging this contest is that you don't give feedback. Nothing. No comments. No suggestions. But no praise either. Which is one of the downsides. The other is that you have to score the work with a completely subjective number. With only five scores given on each entry, your number could make or break that author's chance to final.

All that said, I actually enjoyed the experience. I liked reading what other authors are doing. Mine was the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category (which sadly will no longer exist) so the stories were wildly different. Both from what I normally read and from each other.

So when the call went out for judges in the Golden Pen contest (put on by the Golden Network and a great way to prep for the Golden Heart) I threw my judging hat into the ring again. I've read two of the three entries sent and am highly impressed by the quality of both. Not sure I'd volunteer to judge many other contests. I've judged my local chapter contest and struggled with how to give feedback to writers who seemed to be early in the learning process.

But then that's an assumption and might not be true. We've all heard the horror stories of judge feedback. From the writer I knew who got one that said English was clearly not her first language to another who got the ever uplifting comment that she should give up writing entirely.

So do I say, "You might want to try XX craft book and an e-course on YY?" What if this person has the book and took the class and considers those two areas her strong points? The writer ego is so fragile, I'd hate to be the one to stomp on someone else's.

Anyone else taken on the difficult task of judging contests? How have you handled the feedback? Do you stick with genres close to your heart or venture out for something new to you? Ever judged an entry and then tried to ferret out the writer's name because you loved it so much and wanted to read the rest?


Marnee Bailey said...

Lots of stuff here! :)

I have judged a few contests and I've entered a few.

When it comes to judging, I try not to make sweeping judgments. I try to focus on specifics from the story. What's actually there. Instead of, "You setting needs work" or "your characters are one-dimensional" I'll give specific spots. I think judging (and critiques for that matter) are better when you focus on the specifics. The author can then decide if that's something that goes throughout the story. I judge on what's given to me. Because I hear people who get comments like, "Your characterization needs work." Well, that's unhelpful. What exactly do you mean? It's only helpful if you know what they mean.

As to handling feedback, I think learning how to deal with criticism is part of the game, just like rejections. Thank you for your time and your comments. Cry in the privacy of your house, eat a piece of chocolate. After a couple of days, see if there's something there to take away. If it's particularly scathing, give it a little longer for the sting to wear off. I don't throw them away, so I can go back later. Some of my best crystallizing moments have come from scathing/hard feedback.

I usually try to enter one or two a book. I only enter one or two per book because I think too much feedback can be distracting too.

And yes. I judged the GH this year and one of my entries finaled. She's got a deal from Avon now and I'm excited to read her stuff. It was a really good entry.

Di R said...

I have entered three contests, all with very different outcomes. The first one I entered the historical and they put me in erotic. Mine in no way, shape or form can be considered erotic. I was very upset, but my husband pointed out that I scored better than two other people who wanted to be in that category.
The second contest, I scored a 98 and a 54, so it went to discrepency and I received a 72. Huh?
The last contest I entered I received a 62, 86, and 87. The last two scores from published authors. And they gave good constructive comments.

When I judge, I read it through once and don't touch it for a couple of days. Then I jot down a few notes about what stood out for me-good and bad. Then I read it a second time, before I go back and begin to make comments and fill out the score sheet. I am very careful to mark things I really like, as well as if something isn't clear. Then I let it sit for a couple more days before I go back and look it over one more time to make sure the comments make sense and are not too harsh. I try to make a lot of comments so the author understands where I'm coming from.

I haven't tried to ferret out the name of an entrant, but I did meet someone who's entry I judged. I really liked her entry and found out she was using one of my comments in the blurb.


Meg Benjamin said...

I used to judge several contests before time constraints began to make it difficult to do. Trying to explain what works and what doesn't is always tough. I fall back on my English teacher days and try to concentrate on only one or two things. But I also find myself longing to use Track Changes, which makes it so much easier to explain what needs to be fixed. The only time I really lost it was when a writer sent in the MS from her critique group, still with comments attached. I mean, come on--who does that??

TerriOsburn said...

Marn - I've rarely entered contests and actually never put much stock in the results. (Except the GH. That worked out well. *g*) I find giving feedback harder than taking it. Guess I've gotten better at dismissing the bad stuff as "She just didn't get me."

Di - I do that same thing. Read through once without making notes or comments. Then read the synopsis and go back to the chapters and start pointing out the stuff I think needs the most attention.

Fortunately, these last 2 entries I've read really only needed minor tweaking.

TerriOsburn said...

They left the comments in?? That's got to be an issue of attaching the wrong file. You'd think the contest moderator would have contacted them to see if they meant to use a different file.

Alas, I have no English teacher past on which to rely. So I try to put my reader hat on and give feedback based on the stuff that would make me like the story more from that state of mind.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Having never entered or judged a contest (that 1 time I posted the 1st chapter in Harlequin's SYTYCW contest doesn't count) it's hard for me to comment.

Personally I agree that you need to learn to take the critique and anything you can offer to help them would be great. I mean I want to know specifically that I need to work on XXX, but

TerriOsburn said...

Did Sabrina just fade out there?

I do try to give more than "This doesn't work" or other vague statements like that. Those sorts of things don't tell the writer anything she can really work with. Giving them a suggestion ("suggestion" being the key word) of how to improve that section or paragraph or sentence is better. Being as specific as possible.

Like "One way you could make this smoother is..." but not "You need to do XX here" as if that's their only option. We have to remember that how to fix the pacing or motivation or whatever is different for every author.

Which means dancing the line of specific, helpful feedback without going too far. So hard to find that line.

MsHellion said...

I don't think I have this problem. Clearly I think everyone can benefit from my valued opinion of how to make their writing better. I look at it from a reader perspective more than a writer--what was it that distracted me from the story? That's the thing you don't want.

Then when I judge, if I get to give opinions about stuff, you handle it like you would any critique: you start with what worked. Always start with the positive. Then list the things that didn't work so well, why they didn't work for you, ask questions (because I find questions valuable as someone who is critiqued--I may not agree with your opinion, but the questions usually bring up something that I can fix or that I took for granted), and offer suggestions (though I have finally stopped trying to reword sentence structure and the like because I have accepted that is changing voice and thus unacceptable.)

I judged a contest recently and got two thank you cards from the three people I judged. One I gave a near perfect on, but the 2nd one I had had questions and hadn't rated as high, though I did tell her as a reader I really loved redemption stories for characters and that her voice was strong and lots of potential. I asked questions.

Do I think my contest feedback is as important as Nora Roberts' or the Pocket Books' editor--Of course not--but as the reader who may buy their book one day I think I can give a valid opinion on it--and that's the thing, contests are opinions. It's the first thing writers should remember. Writers who want to write will keep writing anyway, even if the judges quote scripture at them and say that they're going to hell for what they're writing.

Though that judge who said the writer should give up writing was an asshat. I hope the writer has friends who told her so.

Janga said...

I entered one contest, and it was a positive experience. The judge who helped me the most was the one who kept me from finaling; she gave me an 84. But she gave very specific comments on what she thought needed to be changed. Once my pride had recovered from her failure to give me the praise--and the 94/98--that I received from the other two judges, I discovered she was right most of the time. Of course, she also said she expected to see my ms. in her local bookstore within the year, and she was way off there.

The contests I've judged have been for published books, and the contest rules prohibited comments. I thought some of the entries were excellent and wondered that others were published. Of course, I could only express those opinions through numbers.

I admit that I too use my English teacher skills when I comment on a ms. I begin and end commenting on the positives and sandwich the things I see as needing work in between. The theory is that doing this makes writers more receptive to suggestions that their child needs a quick cleanup, a change of outfits, or major surgery--as the case may be. I know from experience that the theory is sometimes wrong. Some people see only the negative and feel attacked. At least as a judge, you have anonymity. Honesty can ruin a friendship when comments come with a name attached.

Maureen said...

My contest experience as an entrant has been so bizarre...comments that made me wonder who the egomaniac is who said that... Plus my genre mash ups generally overpowers any category and judge until the weep in misery and want to crawl away...

At least that is how I have decided to view it...

So, I don't enter contests anymore.

As for judging... We do a critique thing at my local RWA and I think I sorta suck at it. And that is verbal, so I don't know how I'd do in giving written commentary. One on one, I'm good and work with a couple of the writers in my chapter...but actually giving scroes scares me.

With one on one, it's easy to clarify what one says...

As we chatted about the other week, you can't tell what a reader will see in a MS and it's the same with contest. You can't tell what a writer will read with comments.

I have a hard enough time understanding myself most of the time, why torture some other writer?

Maureen said...

Plus when I look at my comment and see all those typos...again, why subject anyone else to my blithering blather?

I want my brain back...

TerriOsburn said...

Janga - Oddly enough, I'd feel more comfortable judging a published book. Then I really am just commenting as a reader and I'm not about to make the person give up their dream and walk away. Not that I'd be harsher, just would take off some of the pressure.

She SHOULD have seen your book on shelves in the next year. *huffs*

TerriOsburn said...

Sorry about the brain, Mo. She seems to be on sabbatical. You'll have to just wait her out. But I do think there are books that just aren't right for contests. Other than one when I first started, one last year, and the GH, I've never entered others. Most of us know enough writer friends or chapter-mates to get feedback for free.

MsHellion said...

I agree--she SHOULD have seen Janga's book the next year. *LOL* But I can't be rock-throwing when I've done the same, getting so distracted by the one or two negative comments with HELPFUL HINTS that I don't even take the constructive criticism in the way it was meant.

When I was sorting through papers in my spare bedroom recently, I found an old contest paperwork for one of my stories. I'm not sure what it was for--but I think it was Lucifer's story. LUCIFER'S! The one I expected harshness but then as soon as I got it, I stuck it under the bed and wrote other things instead.

But I opened it out of curiosity and saw that the commentary was actually very constructive. The main person who wrote back said, "I think you're in a layering/revising stage"--not "I hate your idea or you're the worst writer ever" but that "Hey, I don't think your first draft is the winner here, but with some revision, this puppy is really going to SHINE." And when I was staring at those words, very carefully written, I thought, "That person is extremely right. This definitely needed layers and revision to be what it was supposed to."

I think 99% of the stuff submitted to contests are first drafts or are almost first drafts that need more layering and revision more than anything.

Maureen said...

I'm waiting for the ransom note from the zombies...

"We haf yr brane. We want Segways."

P. Kirby said...

I've only entered on contest through a local writers' group. I did it mainly because it came with a critique which was helpful. (Entry consisted of 3 chapters and a synopsis.)

Actually, if I had the time, I might like doin' some judging. But it's never occurred to me that anyone would want my opinion. (I don't belong to RWA or a similar group, so probably I just don't have the opportunity.) I like giving critiques.

"From the writer I knew who got one that said English was clearly not her first language..."

Wow. This is why I really value the time I've spent over at Critters. It's a SF/F/H workshop, but it has certain requirements regarding critiques. Diplomacy being key. The above comment would not be considered acceptable. It's one thing to say something like, "The phrasing sometimes feels odd, almost like someone for whom English is a second language." But flat-out saying, "English isn't your first language, is it?" is a no-no.

I'm by nature snarky and cruel, but via Critters, I learned the value of dialing back my inner bitch. Plus, it's a lot harder to write a diplomatic and helpful critique, than to shred someone's confidence.

What Janga said...Yeah, I always begin and end with positives. Even if it's so dog-awful all I can manage is, "I love the energy in your writing!"

MsHellion said...

Note to self: "If P ever says she loves the energy in my writing, chuck the manuscript."

Maureen said...


TerriOsburn said...

I somehow missed Hellie's first comment up there. And I had to read Pat's twice to figure out he energy thing. Bah! Is Monday over yet??

Hellie, if you're getting thank you cards, then I'd say you're doing something right. I've judged a few times and never gotten a thank you. But that might be karma, as I've never sent a thank you card either.

TerriOsburn said...

Pat - I think comments like that one shouldn't even make it back to the entrant. Seriously. Some of the GH ladies exchanged contest feedback earlier in the summer and I could not believe the things judges said. And these are GH finalists! We're not talking about newbies sending in the first thing they ever tried to write.

TerriOsburn said...

Now I'm picturing zombies going around in circles on segways.

MsHellion said...

Not cards, but I have gotten emails. (The coordinator for the contest forwarded emails from the authors who wished to thank specific judges--but yes, I think it was more a matter of good manners than anything.:))

P. Kirby said...

Note to self: "If P ever says she loves the energy in my writing, chuck the manuscript."

Giggle. Yeah, it's kind of code for "Sweet Jeebus, I lost IQ points reading this disaster."

"Now I'm picturing zombies going around in circles on segways."

Sigh. As am I. Giggle.

Janga said...

Pat, the sample we used with the grad teaching assistants in grading workshops of what NOT to say in grading an essay ripped the paper to shreds and ended with these words:

"Not only could a developmentally delayed ten-year-old have written with greater focus and clarity, but you used the wrong color ink and the paper is from the wrong kind of tree."

Yes, it was exaggerated, but it made our point memorably.

Eileen Emerson said...

I say the Firebirds' judging prayer: "please let my comments be a blessing to this author."

Then I go all in -- just as I'd do for my critique partner. If I don't like something, or think it's not "working," I always try and give them a suggestion for a way they could make it work. I also make it a point to go back and skim through my comments afterwards to see if I'm harping on one thing (and if I am, then I tone down all but the very first comment.)

If an entry is very good, I usually only give suggestions for minor tweaks to heighten/deepen things that are already working. And then I get to gush! Yay!

If an entry is really entry-level stuff, I try and be supportive, I give suggestions for books that I think the author should check out, and I step back from giving too many comments (for fear of crushing their spirit.) I do, however, give them an appropriately low score. There's no point giving someone a "pity score" -- it doesn't do them, the contest, or the quality level of books any favors.

And I just have to add a note to all the judges out there: THANK YOU FOR GIVING YOUR TIME! Whether you gush or growl, judging is incredibly helpful to up-and-coming writers.

TerriOsburn said...

I've been fortunate, Eileen, that in my brief forays into judging, I've had mostly quality work as entries. There was one that was clearly a beginner and I tried hard to point out the good stuff (there was good stuff) but did recommend a craft book or two that would help her in the weaker areas.

I'm all about a fair score. It's subjective no matter what. Provided a judge focuses on the work alone, doesn't deduct for piddly things (like that ONE comma that was missing), and is fair, the number should be their true judgement of the entry.

Very good point to thank the judges. The current one is taking a little more time than I'd planned to judge. But I'd do it again. It feels good to give back or pay it forward or however you look at it.

Maureen said...

Well, they think the Segways will help them. I'll do whatever I need to get my brain back...

...wrong kind of tree... Bwah ha ha ha ha!

Maureen said...

I want to write over the top snarky comments now...

Marnee Bailey said...

Honestly, I had the most difficulty judging the GH. Because I want to be helpful and I feel like a number isn't helpful.

But, then I have to remember that it isn't about being constructive and I try to move on.