Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Judging the Great American Pastime

by Donna MacMeans

Can you feel the anticipation?

Next week the Romance Writers of America's annual convention will end with the announcement of the Grand Poobah of romance writing contests - The Golden Heart and RITA awards ceremony. Now we banditas have representatives in both divisions - Anna Campbell - a double RITA finalist - and Susan Seyforth and KJ Howe, along with Bandita Buddy Louisa Cornell, in the Golden Heart division. So let me offer a toast to their success. We'll be cheering loudly in the audience in our spandex and spangles.

As you tell from the sidebar, we banditas are familiar with writing contests. As I've been talking this week on another loop about contests, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about contest judges.

1. I basically believe contest judges are trying to do a good job. However, even if they are accomplished writing fiction, basic conversational skills can remain a challenge.

2. Beginning writers are often recruited to be judges because judges, especially good ones, are sometimes hard to find. They are given the challenge of identifying problems and offering suggestions to fix on work that may be better than they are capable of writing themselves.

3. Different people like different things. This is a good thing. Otherwise there would be very few writers in the world and we'd have few opportunities to join their ranks.

4. All contests are a crapshoot. Sometimes you get the judges who "get you." Sometimes you don't.

5. Most judges really try to say something positive about the entries they judge - but it often gets overlooked as we obsess on the negative. I suppose that's human nature.

As is complaining about rotten judges.

So in the spirit of "human nature" I'd like you to share a bad experience with a contest, just to get it off your chest. For me - I had a judge chastise my hero because "a business executive would never say those things." Not sure what planet she was on, but as I was a business executive at the time - I'm pretty sure my dialogue was realistic.

So how about you? I'll give a copy of my Golden Heart winner - The Education of Mrs. Brimley to someone who doesn't already have it (I've given away so many!) So if you'd like to be considered for an autographed copy, just mention it in your comment.


Annie West said...

Am I in time to snaffle the GR?


Annie West said...

Donna, can I second that toast to success for the girls you mentioned? I'd loooove to be there, especially to give my buddy Anna C a cheer when the RITAs are announced. But it'll be long distance cheering as I'll be in Australian instead of San Fran. With you all in spirit though. I hope you're all suitably raucous.

Actually, one of my books is a finalist in a US contest for the first time (which was another tempting reason to try to get to the conference) - I'm a novice at the US contests and have only just starting entering.

Hm, bad contest experiences? Well there was the expensive contest I entered just for the feedback when I got none at all except for argument about which line I should target. Then there was the reader who just didn't get my heroine and rewrote a chunk of the story showing how she should react in a totally different way (completely out of character). Fortunately the editor who read that ms disagreed and believed in the character as she was written (and the book became my first for Harlequin).

And Donna...I'd adore a signed copy of your book!


flchen1 said...

Woohoo! Congrats on the excellent snaffling, Annie! And on your finaling in your first US contest!

Donna, thanks for sharing your contest experiences, and good luck to everyone!

Jane said...

Sometimes we forget that judges are humans and they do have specific likes and dislikes. There's also no way of knowing if a judge is objective and keeps an open mind about all the entries without relying on preconceived notions. Good luck to all the Banditas. Congrats on the GR, Annie.

Donna MacMeans said...

Yes, Annie you snagged the rooster. Congratulations!

Good Luck on your first contest. This must be a published author contest? Crossing fingers for you.

LOL that anyone presumed to change your character's reaction based on a snippet of the book. That's one of those Thanks, but no thanks moments.

Donna MacMeans said...

Fichen - I should have added that any contest - including non-writing contests qualify for the "can you believe it" moments.

Jane - That preconceived notions is a toughie, isn't it. Sometimes it's hard to remember that they're trying to be helpful when looking at the scoresheet - but I think they believe they are.

Annie West said...

Donna, definitely a thanks but no thanks moment. The person wanted my character, who'd spent years trying to hide her body (and who was broke as well), to voluntarily appear in a sexy designer outfit in order to 'fit in'. Argh! Missed the point totally.

Yes, the contest is a pubbed author one. My sheikh, Arik, and his girl have finalled in the National Readers' Choice Awards. (Yippee).

Thanks for the congrats on the rooster. The secret is that I'm having major trouble with this scene. Was looking for distraction. But now I'll be strong and go back to it.


Christine Wells said...

Ooh, Annie! Yay! Congrats on the Golden Rooster. I'm sure you'll be kind;)

Donna, I am so proud of all our Banditas and Buddies up for awards!Isn't Awards night going to be exciting? I hope you've all prepared your acceptance speeches, hmmm?

To be honest, I can't recall too many terrible judges. I've wiped all that from my memory banks. Oh, wait, that's not true. I do recall one who wasn't terrible but had a devastating effect on my score. She raved and said the book was of publishable standard, but the scores she gave were all 4s out of 5 (5 being publishable, not perfect). As a result, I missed out by a fraction of a percent on getting into the final of the Royal Ascot. OK, so not quite erased from the memory bank.LOL

I've had some generous, insightful and very kind judges, too. It's how I met Fo, because she judged Scandal's Daughter in an Australian contest, years ago.

Christine Wells said...

Annie, congrats on finaling in the US contest!!! And I wish you could be at National. I'll be screaming for both of us when AnnaC's name is called.

Eva S said...

Good luck to all of you and congrats Annie!
Donna I loved your book and the one winning it is really lucky!

Tawny said...

GREAT post, Donna :-)

And Congrats, Annie on snagging that wiley bird.

Lesseee, one of my all time favorite contest comments was when someone told me I needed to learn the right "lingo" for a tarot reader. Um... okay. Consindering I've been reading since I was 17 (I refuse to tell how long that is), a number of those years professionally, I was pretty sure I had the lingo down.

Another comment - this one still makes me grin - suggested I find myself a decent Critique Partner because my entry was never going to get an editor or agent's attention in the poor condition it was in. Since I was already agented with it, and it had been passed up to a senior editor to buy I figured this was a silly comment. I think Beth was pretty insulted though LOL.

Tawny said...

Oops-I forgot to yell WHOHOOOOOOOOOOOOO for our awesome finalists :-D

Bravo, ladies :-) We'll be screaming foryou!

And to say that despite a couple not-so great contests comments, I did have a great time on the contest circuit and am grateful to anyone who gives their time to judge. There is so much that IS useful in the feedback, and finaling is lways a fab pat on the back.

Helen said...

Well done Annie

Great post Donna and I too would like to add my best wishes to everyone entered into the contests Good Luck to everyone. I have everything crossed for you all.

The only contest I have entered was The Tafe Student Of The Year contest a few years ago and we had to answer questions on ourselves and how the course that we had done had helped us in our jobs and life. I was very lucky and won that one there where different sections for different courses and I was up against about 10 other students I was over the moon.

The facilitator that we had for the course was a wonderful teacher he is so positive and encouraging I credit him with the win and the push to get me to enter in the first place.

Donna I have a copy of The Education Of Mrs Brimley and what a fantastic book it is the winner will have a wonderful story to read.

Have Fun

Tiffany Kenzie said...

I was having this crapshot convo with a friend yesterday.

I entered 13 contests this year--my friend about the same--I told her we'd be lucky if we finaled in one. LOL And both are pieces are damn good if I do say so myself. But yea, there are some people that will just never get you.

I wish I was going to RWA... next year, I'm saving for next year!

I've had many bad contest experiences. Mostly for the first book I wrote, and after four drafts and much rewriting, people still don't get it, though I get the occasional judge that gives me close to or a perfect score, overall it still does nadda---don't worry, I've taken this as a sign to move on---for now.

Oh, I do not have that book... so put me down for the contest.

Congrats Annie West!

Trish Milburn said...

Good reminders, Donna. And I think that this obsession with the negative comments amongst good ones on contest entries transfers to reviews when we get published. (Says she biting her nails as she waits for her first review. Eek!)

Trish Milburn said...

Annie, good luck in the National Readers' Choice! And congrats on nabbing the rooster.

Good luck to all the GH and RITA finalists! I get to present one of the RITAs this year, so that'll be fun.

Santa said...

I have never had a bad contest experience. Oh, alright, so I've never entered one but still that's a pretty good score - right?

I plan to enter the fray of writing contests this Fall. It's about time I fly it up the flagpole and see who salutes, if you will.

Best of luck to anyone and everyone who's up for contests this year, especially at National!

Congrats to Annie for snagging the GR.

I wonder what the heck a GR is.....

Marie Force said...

I wish all the nominated Banditas the best of luck. I can't wait to attend my first-ever RITA/GH ceremony!

I recently judged a contest where I had a really hard time saying anything positive about two of the entries. It was a terrible feeling to know you are going to crush someone, but I couldn't mark them any higher than I did. I tried to counter the low scores with as much constructive advice as I could think to offer but it was still an unsettling feeling to give such low scores. I'd venture to say that most judges don't enjoy that part of the process.

Lisa said...

Donna, I've entered my share of contests and for the most part had good experiences. What made me bug nuts was the inconsistancies. I had one judge who told me I needed to add more and another who removed words because I had too many. Oh, well, my editor likes my ms just fine.
Lisa Cooke
TEXAS HOLD HIM Dorchester April 09

Kirsten said...

Annie, did you really just ask if the Banditas would be "suitably raucous"? Girl, "suitably raucous" is our middle name! :-) Congratulations on your final! What book was it for? I read the Greek Tycoon's Unexpected Wife and absolutely loved it!

I was a bit of a contest diva for a while with two different Regencies, but there was this woman, what was her name...oh yes -- CHRISTINE WELLS -- whose books kept winning all the categories I was finaling in. It's a little known fact, but that's why I stopped writing Regency. I was driven out of the market by Christine.

My favorite contest judge line was in a contemporary I had written. I had written "CFO" (for chief financial officer), and the judge carefully circled it and wrote above "watch for typos" and changed it to CEO. I can only assume she had never heard of a CFO before! Naturally, she marked me down for that. ;-)

Overall, we are incredibly lucky to have such a bounty of contests to enter in RWA, but we have to be so careful to remember they are not a substitute for an editor's judgment, or for writing an entire manuscript.

Dina said...

Wow, contests are tougher than I thought. I've not been in any bad contest, just didn't win them.

Donna, I'd love a chance to win your book. :)

Kirsten said...

Santa, for you or anyone else entering the contest junket, here's my bit of advice, and it may seem odd: enter a whole bunch at the same time. Do not just enter one. I know, it's expensive, but here's my reasoning. You enter one contest, you get two, maybe three opinions on your ms. This may be helpful, it may be devastating, it may be useless. Most likely useless, because you have no way of knowing who the judge was, and whether their opinion is shared by ANYONE ELSE on the planet (other than your CP, I suppose).

You enter two contests, you get six opinions -- now you can see trends. You enter three, you get nine judges, now you'll absolutely be able to see what are common themes. Now you can actually use the feedback you get. If everyone says the first chapter is too long, or not long enough, or hard to follow, or they love your hero, whatever -- you have the satisfaction of knowing 9 people probably are on to something.

But you have to enter them at the same time (that's key) so you're comparing the same versions of the ms. If you're like me, you monkey around with the thing every few months, so if it isn't the exact same time you're entering the contest, you might have lopped off the entire first chapter. LOL.

Good luck and keep us posted on your contest success!!

Cheri2628 said...

Please enter me in your contest! :)

As for judges, I think some of them take their responsibility just a little too seriously. It seems like they don't feel they are doing their job correctly if they can't find something to criticize.

Keira Soleore said...

Annie, yay, yay, yay. I'm glad the GR's going to keep you company as your CP journey to far away lands.

I'm toasting the success of all those RITA and GH hopefuls with a glass of the sparkling wine in each hand.

With only one contest experience behind me, The Royal Ascot, which was not bad at all (good comments), I don't have anything pertinent to add to the topic.

I echo Annie: I'd adore a signed copy by you, Donna.

Donna MacMeans said...

Christine - I can't believe your worst moments were getting all 4s and 5s on a contests - wait, I read your book - guess I can *g*. It was great!

My first critique partner and I connected through a contest as well. Finding someone like that is worth the pain of the bad judges.

terrio said...

Kirsten - I'm so glad you brought up that suitably raucous comment. That cracked me up. Talk about an understatement.

Cheers for all the contestants! I'm so excited that I get to be there. I'll be cheering my tootsies off!

I've entered one contest and that was when I first started writing. Wanted to see if I was wasting my time. Luckily, both judges said I had potential. BUT (there's always a BUT) they also said my hero sound gay. They were right and that's when I learned how to write male dialogue. :)

A woman in my local chapter once got back a comment from a judge that said English was obviously not her first language and she needed to take more classes before she tried writing anymore. Needless to say, English is her first language and she's a very intelligent woman with a degree in Physics and Chemistry. Yeah, she pretty much ignored that comment.

I have my signed copy already and congrats Annie. I know you'll turn him into an Uber-Alpha Rooster.

Louisa Cornell said...

YAY!! Annie snooked the chook!!He'll be handsome, debonair and UBER ALPHA when she gets finished with him.

And I agree, Kirsten, The Greek Tycoon's Unexpected Wife is fantastic! HOT STUFF!

I have been SO lucky in contests. I really have. I entered about then before Lost in Love started to final. Sure some of the comments were "less than helpful," but for the most part I got a lot of help through contests. I still do.

Lost in Love has finaled in 8 contests and The Raven's Heart has finaled in 2 so far. I have been fortunate enough to have ladies like Cara King and Lynna Banning judge my work, in addition to many others who gave insightful comments.

Now my third WIP Dreams of Angels did not fair so well. It got HAMMERED in the two contests it was entered in and I pulled it to work on it. The thing is, after I read all of the comments I realized where a MAJOR flaw could be easily fixed. So I KILLED OFF an entire branch of the family and I feel much better about Dreams of Angels prospects!

jo robertson said...

Congrats, Annie! You snaffled well!

Great post, Donna. As contest submitters know, it really IS a crap shoot sometimes. I once had a contest judge mark me down for grammar. Since I'm an English teacher by profession, I wondered where HER language teacher had gone wrong.

It's also annoying to be corrected on a geographical fact that you're sure of, especially when you live in the area and know what you're talking about.

But, on the flip side, it's very hard for beginning or untrained judges to comment appropriately on work they read.

Bottom line: contests can be another chance to get someone's opinion about your work, but you can't worry take anything as gospel truth.

jo robertson said...

Santa, good luck with dipping your toes in the water. Entering your first contest is frightening, but exhilarating at the same time.

In case no one's answered, the GR is the Golden Rooster and is awarded to the first commenter on the day's post. Annie West captured him today, so he gets to go back to Australia. He's become quite the world traveler.

jo robertson said...

I forgot to shout out a HUGE congratulations to our finalists in the GH and the RITA. We'll be screaming and cheering them on in San Fran!

Santa said...

Thanks for the great advice, ladies. I'll keep that in mind when I enter (and now budget for,lol) those contests!

Christie Kelley said...

Congrats to the finalists. I'll be cheering you on from Maryland.

I think I'm falling into Christine's amnesia hole. I can't remember any truly awful comments from judges. Most of what I would get was the traditional regency judges telling me my heroine would never do this or that.

Minna said...

Skiing competitions in elementary school. I hated those! Everybody had to take part, liked it or not. Once I even forgot my skis accidentally on purpose just so that I wouldn't have to take part in that competition. What's to like? I was always the last one, anyway. And on top of it I got all those nice comments from the bullies about the way I skied and how slow I was. Before school I used to like skiing. Just ask me if I like skiing now! =P

I'm afraid I don't have The Education of Mrs. Brimley yet.

Kim Howe said...


Fabulous post! Your thoughts on judges were bang on and your photos are hilarious. I've definitely entered my share of contests and I've experienced some interesting reactions. The funniest one for me was getting 1 out of 9 in every category from one judge. In the section where the judges were asked what they liked about my novel, this judge said, "nothing." I couldn't take that negative reaction seriously as she even gave me a 1 in form and I submitted a professional-looking manuscript. So, the lesson there is to be careful how seriously you take comments/scores. Sometimes people don't like your work and you just have to shrug it off. Please forgive me for my smile when I found out I won that contest! Remember, writers need the skin of a rhino!

Beth said...

Congrats to our GH/RITA finalists! I can't wait to cheer you all on next Saturday night *g*

I can't remember any truly horrible contest experiences - I've had my share of comments that I didn't agree with but nothing that truly hurt me or my ability to write.

I've gained a lot of valuable feedback from contests (early on especially) And I'll always be so grateful that I finalled in the GH in '06 and '07 since it brought me all of you and ultimately led to my first sale :-)

Beth said...

Another comment - this one still makes me grin - suggested I find myself a decent Critique Partner because my entry was never going to get an editor or agent's attention in the poor condition it was in. Since I was already agented with it, and it had been passed up to a senior editor to buy I figured this was a silly comment. I think Beth was pretty insulted though LOL.

Darn right I was insulted. For both of us! And hadn't you already won the Blaze contest at this time? Or was that shortly after?

Either way, I was a bit...put off by the judge's comment *g*

Elyssa Papa said...

I either do well in contests or I don't. I'm not a gray matter type of writing gal where people sort of like my writing---they either love it or hate it. And when they hate it, they certainly rip me a new one. I had one judge who was not constructive whatsoever in her comments and was a total b**ch.

But with every contest I do enter--regardless if I final (three, woohoo!) or not, I get a tougher skin and learn how to take comments that I don't agree with. Because let's face it, when you're published, not everyone is going to love your book and you'll have negative reviews. Contests are a way of thickening your skin, and if you're lucky (yes, lucky) to final, then hopefully, you final in a contest that gets you in front of an agent or editor's eyes.

But like my friend, who is soon-to-be-published said, contests are not meant to be a replacement for querying. So, query, query, query, too.

Donna MacMeans said...

Eva - Thanks so much. You're such a sweetie.

Donna MacMeans said...

Tawny - I hope you're packing your tarot cards in San Francisco. I'd love to watch you do a reading.

LOL on Beth being indignant. I had a judge in a published author contest email me to say that she really enjoyed my book, but that there were so many grammar errors, she couldn't give it a high score and I should do better. I wanted to point out that the manuscript had been proofed for grammar errors by my agent, a copy editor, and my editor. But...I didn't.

Ruth said...

My worst contest experience: I came home one night to my score sheets from a reputable contest...but the scores were by far the lowest and the comments the worst I'd received for this medieval, which had finaled in several contests.
I consoled myself by thinking, "Dorchester must have liked it, they asked for the full for American Title II."
And guess what? The next day, I found out that the ms was an American Title II finalist.

I also enjoy when judges attempt to correct my research, by saying things like, "Richard wasn't the Duke of York, he was the Duke of Gloucester." Obviously this depends on what year your ms is set in!

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Helen! So did you get anything for your first place win? or just a "certificate suitable for framing" *g*. Good teachers (& judges) are a blessing. They touch so many lives in ways they can't imagine. Glad you found this special motivator.

Donna MacMeans said...

Tiffany - Good luck on those 13 contests. Have you heard any results yet?

Don't forget to look for the positive comments on your feedback. Use those comments to guide any revisions to punch up those facets you obviously do well.

I think we often focus on the negative comments and just overlook the positive.

Sorry we won't see you in San Fran - but maybe you can make Washington DC next year!

Donna MacMeans said...

Trish - Good luck on that review. It's amazing what some readers get out of your book that you never put in there in the first place *g*.

I think part of the learning they we absorb entering contests while unpubbed is developing a thick skin for those reviews when published. However, I'm sure yours are going to be great!!

Cool on presenting the RITA. I enjoyed presenting the GH last year. Another new experience!

Donna MacMeans said...

Santa - I think it's an accomplishment in and of itself to enter a contest. It takes guts to send your baby out there, so kudos to you. Just remember that the judges are not the voice of God. Don't take their comments to heart. Just review them and see if they make sense to you and to your writing.

The GR is the Golden Rooster and is virtually awarded to the first person of the day who posts a comment. Let me tell you, that rooster covers a lot of landscape. If you check the loop in the wee hours of the morning - you too could be the first *g* There's one every morning.

MsHellion said...

Bad contest experience:

OKAY, I admit I was kinda asking for it.

The hero was (*brace yourself*) Lucifer. Yeah, and the feedback I got back from one of the judges was, "THIS could never ever happen" and she quoted scripture references. (I did NOT entire my manuscript in the Inspirational category; I'm not that much of an idiot.) Oh, and I'm a Deacon Elder's Daughter, cradle raised in the church if that adds any to the irony.

Of course one of the other three judges couldn't say enough good things about Lucifer. So basically I got like a 9, and then I got a 0...and the third judge was like, "Your heroine is unlikeable."--and that was the end of that contest.

Donna MacMeans said...

Marie - You're going to love going to San Francisco. Be sure to look up the banditas. You'll know us by the sparkling pins that say "bandita" (you don't really think we look like those photo-shopped pictures, right? *g*)

Congrats on being a contest judge! I think that's where the real learning occurs. Not only do you come away with a better sense of the level of competition, but often in trying to offer constructive suggestions to the entrant, a light bulb goes off about your own writing.

When I'm faced with that struggle to find three positive things on an obviously beginner manuscript, I make one of those comments an acknowledgement that entering contests is a major step on the career ladder. Sometimes you've got to let those babies fly into the world of a cold read. A contest is a great way to start.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Lisa - Love that signature line! Congrats again on that first sale!

Removing vanilla or filler words from a sentence or from a scene can yield a stronger read.

Adding details, emotions, reactions to a sentence or to a scene can yield a more powerful, memorable read.

Both judges may have been right!

Donna MacMeans said...

Kirsten - LOL on Christine stealing your thunder. That opening scene of hers in Scandal's Daughter, though, was definitely a winner. She would be tough to beat.

LOL on the CEO & CFO comment, You should have thrown a CIO in there as well *g*. Initials can cause confusion. I once judged an entry where the author kept referring to OSU. Given my geographical location & alumni status, I translated that to be Ohio State University (and instantly gave kudos to the manuscript). Right at the end of the entry, she mentioned Oregon State University. I was totally bummed.
Wait - was that your entry? Many, many years ago?

Donna MacMeans said...

dina - Well, I never won a contest either until the year I sold. Previous to that I was a frequent finalist, but never the winner. The year I sold I actually won a total of three contests with two different stories, including the Golden Heart.

I think finaling is as good as winning. You get that editor read and that really is the prize. Kudos to you on entering.

Donna MacMeans said...

Cheri2628 - I think you're right. At the same time, I think many judges know something is holding this manuscript back from soaring - but they don't know what it is, so they guess.

I really think judging a contest is a true eyeopening experience. Once I started judging, I realized how important certain elements of a dynamic opening can be.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Keira - Are you still there? Or did the multiple toasts of sparkling wine take you under? *g*

I have a feeling we'll be seeing your name in the finalists column in the RWR more and more.

Glad your first experience into the contest foray was a good one.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...


Donna, thanks for your AskAnAuthorPro comments on thank-you notes! Last night I got one that said something like "Thanks for taking time to judge my entry. Your comments were very much appreciated. Sincerely, (illegible signature)."

I'm sure the author wrote that note with all the goodwill in the world, and I feel bad that she wasted her time -- not to mention her postage.

Notes with a specific comment on what I said that helped the author, notes that mention the title (or better yet, something about the characters / plot / situation), notes that ask a thoughtful follow-up question...I love those.

Those are the mark of people I'm glad to stay in touch with, people whose first sale I wait for eagerly, people I'm looking forward to meeting at National! (Gee, maybe somebody here?)

Laurie, still feeling bad for whoever wrote that illegibly-signed thanks :)

Donna MacMeans said...

Terrio - She was probably using those screwy English & Australian spellings (he-he-he).

Interesting comment. I've read some entries where I've wondered about the nationality of the entrant - not because of the English usage which tended to be impeccable - but because of a very formal writing style. It's hard to explain, but it felt like it was written by someone of another nationality. Not that that should matter to the scoring. I've never said anything about my hunch - just for the reasons you cited - but I've wondered.

limecello said...

Hm, judging. We all like to style ourselves as experts. And - it's tough to take criticism. Too often it's taken personally. Or, the person's words are more of a personal attack than an impersonal blurb. I think names and titles have a lot to do with it too - like how everyone says Harvard and Yale are the best at everything. [Although *gasp* they very well may not be.]
As for poor judging... I've had a few experiences where my entries were *not* judged - items I knew [with no arrogance] that they would have placed in the top ten - because of prior experience and the category. That was no fun. Sometimes, what you have simply isn't what the judge is looking for. I've done competitive debate, and sometimes the judges just didn't understand the case/issues - that's always a bit disappointing too. But, what can you do.

Donna MacMeans said...

Louisa - I've always suspected you were a bloodthirsty author *g*.

I will be cheering loudly for you at the GH ceremony, but I'll also be cheering for a friend of mine, Susan Heino, who is in your divison. So many talented authors...

That's one of the neat things about contests. Once you know what it takes to final, and you do so successfully, when an entry isn't pulling it's weight in contests, you know something is missing. The judges may not have nailed the missing component, but they have alerted you to look.

Good Luck next week!

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Jo! Sometimes I think the entry form should give a profile of the entrant as well as the judge. Maybe something about the skill level ... how many completed manuscripts ... geographical location - etc.

Heck - it would be nice if they gave the same information about the judge *g*.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Christie - We'll be raising a toast in your honor in SF. Promise!

I got those "an historical heroine would never do that!" comments as well. Heck - I figured that's why she was a heroine, she did something the others would be too chicken to attempt *g*.

Always listen to your gut.

We'll miss you next week (sniff, sniff)

Donna MacMeans said...

Minna - Mandatory skiing competitions in elementary school!!

Now see, that's a big cultural chasm between Finland and the US *g*.

I don't think I put on a pair of skis until I was in my 20s and let's just say the results weren't pretty.

Bullies, unfortunately, are universal. Good thing we can kill them off in fiction *g*.

Donna MacMeans said...

Go KJ, Go KJ - That is so neat that you won that contest. That's also why I think every contest should offer discrepancy judging.

Don't you love the photo of the little girl on training wheels about to take on the roller coaster? I think stepping on the contest circuit can be like that.

Speaking of photos - Love, love, love your new author photo, BTW. We'll be screaming for you in San Fran.

Donna MacMeans said...

Beth - I bet that comment was made by someone who secretly knew this was Tawny's entry and was jealous that you were her CP.

I think if you shared snarky judging comments with Tawny, she'd have you laughing so hard, the venomous comment would lose all it's power. Yet another advantage of a great critique parner, they keep us sane.

Nancy said...

Annie, congratulations on the bird! Great news about your Readers Choice final. Good luck to you and to all our banditas and buddies who're up for awards.

Donna, I couldn't agree more. BTW, I already have the excellent Mrs. Brimley and have just finished your wonderful second book, The Trouble With Moonlight. It's got English aristocracy, a hot love story, spies, and super-powers. What more could I want?

Bad luck contest stories--I'm glad to say I don't have that many. I did enter a book set in the Restoration period (1660 to whatever year Charles II died, which I forget), only to have a judge go on and on and on and on about how I'd screwed up the research. "The heroine doesn't behave like a medieval woman." Considering that most historians date the end of the Middle Ages no later than Richard III's defeat at Bosworth in 1485, I should hope not. The heroine was based on a real person, whose diaries I've read.

I also studied Tudor and Stuart Britain at Oxford. I have a shelf of books on that period, most of which I've read fully and all of whom I've delved into to some extent. I have the books to back up everything except the firearm I gave the heroine, but the judge was wrong in insisting it should be a matchlock because the flintlock was invented around 1610. The pistol's size was an extrapolation on which I admit the possibility of error.

This judge said nothing about my writing, only about my supposed failure to do research. The entry went to disparity judging, where the SAME thing happened, just not to as extensive and tiresome an extent.

The lesson I took away from this is that you submit an entry in a period not "hot" in the market at your own peril.

I've had friends get entries back saying "people in this industry don't do this" when they worked in those same industries, experiences similar to yours. A friend had someone tell her "I didn't believe your heroine gave up practicing law because lawyers are too dedicated for that." This person obviously knows no lawyers. I know several, including me, who did exactly that and many more who'd love to if their families could take the income hit.

The bottom line for me, which I try to keep in mind when I judge, is that judges should never assume the author doesn't know what she's doing unless they've researched the exact same area widely and for a long time.

Kirsten, I think that's great advice, not to take the opinions of one set of judges as gospel.

KJ--I'm sure that win was especially sweet! Glad it worked out that way.

Helen, congratulations on your victory.

Di R said...

Good luck to all the nominees!!

I have not entered any contests. Heck, sometimes when I read too many things to "help me write better" it makes me feel as though everything I am doing is wrong. Then I get discouraged and stop writing, again.

I am very excited to be going to the COFW conference in Sept. So my goal is to have at least my first draft done. Then I can be recharged and ready for the second draft.

I would love to be entered into the contest.

Donna MacMeans said...

Elyssa - Have you been talking to the soon-to-be-published Lisa Cooke? That sounds like her line, and it's a good one.

I hear that "they either love it or hate it" comment a lot. It generally means you have a strong voice that pulls emotion. It also sounds like you'll continue to hear this in reviews when the book is published. You just need to find the right editor, at the right time. Good Luck!

terrio said...

This reminds me of something Deb Werksman said the other day. Paraphrasing it was something about contests being totally different than querying. In a contest, you're being judged against the other entries, and in querying, you're being judged against the editor/agents expectations.

I guess that means if your writing is really good, it's not going to matter if your heroine doesn't seem typical or you put two commas in the wrong place. It's really all about the writing so maybe more contest judging should focus on that area.

Carol Burnside said...

I think the most exasperating comment I received from a judge was one complaining about me naming too many characters starting with the same letter. She listed two names and one of them wasn't a character in my manuscript! :-O

Count me in for the contest. :)

Minna said...

I don't think I put on a pair of skis until I was in my 20s and let's just say the results weren't pretty.

Well, it's one of those things you should learn when you are a kid. Starting from the beginning as an adult is a lot harder. Made me remember those guys from some part of Africa who for some weird reason really wanted to learn to ski and compete in skiing. I'm not sure, but I think they even managed to get themselves into the Olympics and represent their own country. And you could just tell they hadn't been born with skis in their feet.

Minna - Mandatory skiing competitions in elementary school!!

Yep. And mandatory skiing on sports lessons. Fun -NOT! There was some discussion going on about this stuff on the radio months ago. And I'm not the only one in this country who learnt to hate skiing at school.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Ruth!

LOL on the research gaffe. I know you didn't do this, but allow me to use your comment for a soap box moment.

Historical authors - please put the year of your setting in a dateline, please? The country wouldn't hurt either.

Can't tell you how many historical contest entries I've judged that I couldn't tell what period the story was set in. I had one that I thought was a medieval until they used a term that meant it must be Regency or Victorian (still wasn't sure which it was).

So did Dorchester grab the manuscript? If not, I heard Kate Duffy at Kensington say she's looking for a good medieval. Good Luck!

Donna MacMeans said...

MsHellion - That is so funny! And unique. No one could say that your hero wasn't hot! (he-he-he)

That might be a tough sell, but man-oh-man if you can get that premise to work, I'd love to read the book.

I've been seeing a lot more satanical beings as heros/heroines this days. It sounds like you've got the perfect background to blow this story way out of the envelope.

Here's the thing - stories like this that really push the edge of the envelope are the ones most likely to appeal to an editor and the ones most likely to be blown out of the water by judges trained to be afraid of the spectacular.

You go, girl. Good Luck with this!

Jennifer Y. said...

I want to say congrats to all of those that are finalists and winners of contests! Yay! Good luck to all!

Anna Campbell said...

Annie, congratulations on the rooster. I don't think you've ever had him before, have you? Bravo! Watch him, though? He's a slippery customer!

Donna, what a great post! Actually contests were what kept me writing through the long, long time it took me to sell so I'll always be grateful. Which doesn't mean I didn't hit judges who made me contemplate putting out a contract! And I don't mean a writing contract.

And some of them just made me laugh. As those who have read my stuff know, I have a fairly baroque prose style which personally I think suits a historical romance. I had one poor judge who sat down and rewrote the entire first chapter of Claiming the Courtesan in (very 21st century) words of one syllable. Didn't have quite the impact, but she meant well, poor thing. I can still see Kylemore "doing up his pants."

Anna Campbell said...

By the way, thanks for the RITA plug! I'm just so excited to be in the running! Good luck to our GH girls too! And thanks to everyone who's wished me luck! If you're around SF, make sure you come by the literacy signing and say hello. I've got Caramello Koalas!!!!

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Laurie - At least you got a note! I get nothing - nada. I think my entrants must still be stunned by my scores *g*

My last thank you note was from...Dianna Love. I think I judged her last contest entry before she sold and later won the RITA. And I think I scored her in the high 80s (D'oh). However, in my defense, I was thinking single title, and she published in category and the two are not the same.

Anyway, I made suggestions and she commented in her thank you note that she appreciated my comments but some of the things I wasn't fond of were the very things her editor loved - which just goes to show that it's one person's opinion. However she appreciated the long letter I wrote to accompany the score sheet and found some useful things there.

I ran into Dianna last month and introduced myself as "that" judge. She said she always appreciated sincere criticism because a book can always be better. A very classy lady that Dianna Love.

Anna Campbell said...

Hiya Santa! Gird those loins and get out to the contest circuit, my girl! It's a really great way to get used to getting a variety of responses from total strangers, good preparation for being published, believe me. And you'll get some great advice too! The vast majority of my experiences were extremely positive.

The GR is a mythical golden rooster with a glint of evil in his eye and a yen for the henhouse. He spends the day with whoever posts first on the romance bandits. He's a highly sought after visitor!

Anna Campbell said...

Marie, I've done a lot of judging too. Those entries are really tough, aren't they? I really, REALLY try to say something nice! And I've also seen how people can improve in this business - hard work takes you a long way. Looking forward to meeting you in SF!

Hey, Kirsten, isn't Stavros in Annie's Greek Tycoon book the sexiest beast? Wow! The nomination is for Annie's absolutely marvellous FOR THE SHEIKH'S PLEASURE. Arik is more a charmer than Stavros but equally sexy. Hubba hubba. I'm not at all surprised it finalled in the NRCA.

Christie Kelley said...

Donna, you're right about sticking to your gut. If my heroine had done everything a perfect regency lady should have done, she would have been extremely boring.

Have a nice glass of wine for me in SF. I'm getting really down that I'm not going to be there. Instead, I'll be home painting. That's really not right!

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Limecello - You know, I did competitive speaking as well - not debate, though. I did extemporaneous speaking - which basically means I can BS when necessary. Where were we...?

Oh yes - titles! You mean like the title of the manuscript? I swear that's an art form. I am absolutely awful at coming up with dynamic, evocative titles. But some people are great. Listen if someone tells you that your title is fantastic - take that as a sincere compliment.

And yes, I suppose they do precondition expectations. However, I've judged some poor entries with great titles and vice versa.

Something we haven't mentioned is that as individual entrants, we don't necessarily see the competition. One entry may be good and deserving to final, but then another entry shows up that blows everyone away (like Kirsten's comment about being bested by Christine). It happens. That's why every contest is a gamble.

Anna Campbell said...

Laughed at Annie turning our naughty rooster into one of her sexy heroes!

Christine, I want to say I still think you're the only contest entry I've ever given 100% too. I read this thing and just thought, WOW!!! Not very useful, I know. And my comments were nothing but incoherent praise. In fact, I may even have fallen to my knees and started to kowtow, going "I am not worthy!"

Donna MacMeans said...

Nancy - I like your lesson learned. It's not just the contest judges that make that research mistake - editors do it too. I have a friend who submitted a story where an Edwardian era woman was acting a part in a Shakespearean play. An editor returned the manuscript saying that women couldn't be actors in that time period. Not true. There were many actresses in the Edwardian period. I'm thinking the editor had just returned from seeing "Shakespeare in Love" which was popular then and got her periods confused.

Crap happens.

Hey - Glad you enjoyed Mrs. Brimley and The Trouble with Moonlight. I love praise from talented writers like yourself. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside *g*

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Ruth, buddy, chum, mate! Lovely to see you here. Here, have this nice cold cabana boy I've been keeping in the fridge for you!

Hey, Laurie, from one Campbell to another, greetings! Lovely to see you here. Looking forward to meeting you. Actually, on the subject of thank you notes, two words - SEND THEM! A bit of good manners takes you a long way. For a start, that's how I got an agent!

Donna MacMeans said...

Di r - There's so much to learn about writing and it can seem like information overload. Just take in what you can. Process it. Then take in the next chunk.

I'm so bummed that I'll be missing the COFW conference this year. I mean, Mary Jo Putney, is going to be there!!! Unfortunately, I have a family wedding on that day and family always comes first. (though I may just grumble about it).

Hope you have a good one!

Helen said...

Yes Donna I got a certificate and a cheque for $500 which I bought myself a diamond ring with I thought I deserved to be spoilt after the hard work I had put into the course LOL.

It must be hard to be a judge I don't think I ever could be

Have Fun

Keira Soleore said...

Foanna, HOHOHOHEEHEE. What a character that judge must be. Pity they don't vet the judges better. Hilarious now, and a story for the author annals, but must've been excruciating then.

Cassondra said...

elyssa papa said:

either do well in contests or I don't. I'm not a gray matter type of writing gal where people sort of like my writing---they either love it or hate it.

elyssa, one of the best bits of advice I ever received from a (now published, but then only GH winner)author was, "middling scores are not what you want. Love it or hate it scores are the sign of a strong writing voice, and that is what will eventually get you sold."

I've taken that to heart, and of course, I've had some middling scores since then, and those, honestly, scare me more than the 1s or the 9s.

Lessee...some ludicrous comments...I had one manuscript judged in a very big (and tough) contest and one judge absolutely hated it--said the only thing good about it was the pacing--that I had the right pacing for a romantic suspense. The other judge (there were only two) wrote on top of the first page, "This is wonderful. I forgot I was judging and just enjoyed reading" And she SIGNED IT!!!!! This second judge was a multiple-time #1 NYT Best Seller. Who do you suppose I listened to? I framed that first page and it hangs beside my computer.

One of the most ludicrous was teh comments "Terrorists don't do ______ and don't do ________ and they don't use this kind of weapon and that kind of weapon isn't available in _________".

Okay, my husband if former Special Forces, specializing in anti-terrorism and he and I do weapons workshops for writers all over the place. So at that point I really learned to take all judges comments with a grain of salt.

Beyond that, I once coordinated a contest and I read through every comment by every judge who judged in that contest, and honestly I had to shake my head at some. It was like they hadn't read the manuscript and were commenting on something completely different.

Okay all that said, those contests can get you something that's extremely difficult to get--a read by an editor or an agent. That's why we enter them once we learn our craft. At the beginning, they're great for learning what works and what doesn't---IFFFF ---and that's a BIG IF-----you get an experienced judge who can help you on the right path to improvement.

I think the key to using contests is to enter more than one, and take the "gist" of the sum total of the comments. If they're all over the place, it may be that you're just getting a weird mix of judges. If they're consistent...
"I hate your heroine", then you can really glean something and work on it and move forward.

They are what they are. I once registered on the "contest diva" website. Doubt I show up now. If you haven't googled yourself and you've been in a bunch of contests, try it. It's scary!

Cassondra said...

Donna said:

You know, I did competitive speaking as well - not debate, though. I did extemporaneous speaking - which basically means I can BS when necessary.

Donna I did that too!

And yes, it's exactly what it means. I can BS with the best of them. I have a wall full of trophies for my ability to BS.....hmmmmmm.....not sure that's a good thing....

Annie West said...

Blogger at my comment so am trying again - Kirsten and Louisa, thanks for the lovely feedback on The Greek Tycoon's Unexpected Wife! Fantastic to hear. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Kirsten, I see Anna has answered your question about the book of mine that's finalled in the NRCA.

As for the GR, it's morning here now and he's up strutting his stuff with macho panache. Obviously the Aussie air appeals to him!

Thanks, Donna, for a beaut blog. I forgot to add that for every negative contest experience there have been many many more positive ones.


Joan said...

Fantastic post, Donna!

I too had an early contest entry where the judge gently chastised me for being ridiculous in not having my hero and heroine start out as friends who gradually grow to love on another.

When one betrayed the other into a life of slavery? Not likely.

The Patrician's Desire and The Patrician's Fortune both have finaled and/or won 4 contests each. It was very interesting to go back into the archives of the years I finaled/won to see who landed there with me or had done well in previous years.

Oh, say like Anna Campbell, Kirsten Scott, Nancy Northcott...

I'm like WOW their my friends!

Cannot wait to cheer Anna, Susan, KJ and Louisa on at the ceremony!

Donna MacMeans said...

Terrio - Amen, Sistah! It's all about the writing.

Problem is, many judges haven't reached that realization in their own work and they're liable to take their frustrations out on your entry. So don't fall prey to their failures. Don't sacrifice the magic.

Donna MacMeans said...

Carol - LOL That was too funny. I think you got one overstressed judge.

I remember I had a judge that lectured me about not using a character's name until they were introduced. Had she looked (or had she carefully read the story) the character was introduced on the page before she found my "grand error." I had really wanted to get before the editor in that contest and she knocked me out - no discrepancy judging in that contest. I learned my lesson.

Donna MacMeans said...

Cassondra - et tu, extemporaneous?

LOL - I knew there was a reason we could talk & talk and in the end - not have said a revelant thing *g*

But you've got to admit, those skills do pay off in the real world.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna - ROFLMAO at the judge who would take all that time to do such an absolutely ridiculous thing. Sadly, she probably wouldn't have done it if she didn't thinking she was helping you somehow.

Perhaps she thought Dukes were more intimidating in the 21st century? Okay, picking myself off the floor, and wiping tears from my eyes.

Donna MacMeans said...

Joanie - I was tempted to do that - look back and see who showed up on the finalist pages the years I was on the circuit.

This just goes to show that this business is about perseverence as anything else.

If you're going to let a contest judge or a rejection make you quit, it's probably a good thing because it doesn't get easier. If you'll willing to stick it out - you'll be published eventually, because you keep getting better and better -- and the market eventually turns your way.

I think your Romans are ready to break loose. Fingers crossed that it happens soon.

Donna MacMeans said...

Christie - We'll have several glasses of wine for you (but not red - I've "seen" enough red for a bit. I'll find out tomorrow if the cleaner got the red wine out of my white skirt).

The good news is you have no excuse not to come next year as we'll be in your backyard.

Watch those paint fumes!

Donna MacMeans said...

Helen - Oh a cash prize. Love it and love the way you used it. I know a pubbed author who believes you should buy a new nice piece of jewelry with every book you sell.

I think that's a neat idea for purposes of having heirlooms to pass down the line - but I don't wear a lot of jewelry, so I'd need something else.

Heck, I'd probably blow the whole $500 at a bookstore *g* (a whole new type of gem)

Donna MacMeans said...

Drumroll please... I counted eight people requesting to be in the prize pool.

The winner from the drawing is ...Cheri2628

But I'm also sending Carol Burnside a copy of The Education of Mrs. Brimley because she posted such a fabulous post on AskAnAuthorPro

So if you two ladies would go to and send me your contact information, I'll get the autographed copies of The Education of Mrs. Brimley to you.

Thanks for all the fabulous comments! Lots of Luck to all in your future contests.

Christine Wells said...

Kirsten, I will NOT take responsibility for driving you out of Regency!LOL I think you just found your niche in YA although I'd love you to join the historical ranks again, too. Thank you and Donna for saying such lovely things but contests are such crapshoots and many times the historical sections are judged by people who have a very traditionalist view of what a Regency should be--not necessarily a finger on the pulse of what's selling.

Oh, I had my fair share of negative comments, like "thought your hero was lovely--he'd need to be to put up with a spoiled brat like your heroine". BUt not too many utter clangers that I recall. They either liked it or they didn't. I just remember that judge who didn't score quite high enough was the one that really frustrated me. If you get all 4s in a contest, you can kiss finaling goodbye, usually. Hey, you enter to win, don't you? Or is that just me being competitive?*g*

Christine Wells said...

Fo, as far as I recall, you were lovely and gave me wonderful advice about what publishers to target etc. You're such a darling. Mwah!

But everyone look at Anna's chest at SF and you will know a true contest diva has arrived! I always think we're like old generals digging out the medals for our special time at conferences with all our pins.*g*

Anna Campbell said...

Miss Wells, I'm SHOCKED that you're encouraging the fine upstanding youth of America to check out my chest!

Christine Wells said...

Fine and upstanding just about covers it;)