Monday, July 6, 2009

Contest Woes

If you belong to any RWA loops, you'll often hear about contests. Off loop, you don't hear about them as much but every once in a while someone will gripe about one.

I'm not talking about free e-book contests or free print books when you twitter a jingle twisted to sound like a romance novel.

No, the contests I speak of are the ones where those of us who have written a book, submit some pages for other non-published and published authors to critique in hopes of winning recognition or a read from an agent or editor.

I'm not here to slam these contests. I want to make that clear up front. I've joined a few of them with a horrible book I wrote, and then joined a few more with my agented book.

Contests should be handled like critique. The comments are mostly the opinion of the reader and not necessarily always true. HOWEVER, if you receive mirrored feedback from the different judges, chances are they are seeing what you cannot and you should take the advice to heart and work to improve your writing.

Having said this, I would like to state that joining a scene specific contest isn't for the faint of heart or anyone with high blood-pressure.


I've had a few friends complain about the comments they have received and I am jumping on the bandwagon. Not because I'm angry. I'm not. The work I'm referencing as an example has been revised and has an agent and some of the points made in the contest I'm referencing helped get me to where I am. I am very PRO-CONTESTS. However, we all need to realize the subjective comments are to be brushed off and laughed at. We all get them! Moreso with contests that have scenes in the middle of the novel. Below are some of my more annoying contest comments from the most recent entrance.

My Example:

The contest I entered wanted my best make-up or break-up scene with a set-up synopsis unjudged. Sweet! How fun is that? After submitting my story, I had my edits on From The Ruins and realized I had a passive voice problem. Because of those edits, I knew I wouldn't win any of the contests I had just entered but I still couldn't wait for the feedback.

The synopsis "unjudged", required for the contest, covered from the beginning of the story to the scene to be judged with vague descriptions that let them know why my heroine was attacking the hero. Nothing overly specific considering I only had two double-spaced pages to walk them to the near end of the book where the to-be-judged scene took place.

I didn't describe the actual room my characters were in or the clothes they were wearing or why my heroine had a gun. I thought the point of the synopsis was to build up to the scene for story purposes. I'm still not sure how I should have done it differently, so if you're looking for a how-to on synopsis for contests you won't find it here. LOL

Comment Example (real comments in quotes): In the entered scene there is reference to a paper shirt the heroine's wearing and baggy pants. The judge (Who is marked unpublished and non-PRO but "trained".)asked a lot of questions. "We don't know what she's wearing. I'm assuming you cover it before this scene but with this scene, I'm lost as to why she's wearing a paper shirt. Did she escape from a hospital? Where did she get the gun? These kinds of contests are hard for this reason." ....and she marked me down.

FACT: In the scene prior to the one she judged...guess what it explains? The heroine's escape from a type of hospital and why she is wearing the baggy pants as well. It also explains where she picked up the gun. **It is important to note, this was a 10 page contest. The beginning of the scene where she walks into the warehouse and the description is heavier, is missing. I start straight in with the action and I don't let go until page 10 where they cut me off with their restrictions. (Which are necessary, granted.)

Comment Example: This judge seemed horrified by my sensual couple. "I do not read a lot of erotica and I am very picky about what works for me."
& "If this is an erotic (and I can't imagine it's not)..."

FACT: I entered the contest with a level 5 heat rating and it is a contest where they wanted your best make-up or break-up. I figured sexual tension or hot lovin' would be expected. But my book is NOT an erotic. It is a paranormal romance that would have a Scorcher or Hot rating in Romantic Times should I ever be so lucky.

She scored me quite low. Out of 120 points I received 91. Ouch.

Second Judge:

Unpublished but trained PRO judge didn't score me much better. 95.

Comments: "It's always tough picking up in the middle. I may have missed some things." I got a medium to low score for good sense of time and place with the comment "Again, coming in mid story alot of this may have been in place."

Fact: Since I'm unsure what "alot of this" is, I can't really say if my story covers what she has a problem with prior to the scene.

At this point I became annoyed not because I thought my marks should be higher (though maybe they should have been) but for why I was getting marked down. It seemed like the judeges scored me based on assumptions instead of content.

They assumed I didn't describe the room prior to the action portion of the scene. They assumed my heroine didn't have an explanation as to why she wore a paper shirt and baggy pants. Even the third judge (who was published, trained, contest finalist/winner, and PRO) had a moment where she made an assumption and I LOVED almost all of her opinions. She gave me a solid critique and a bunch of suggestions I implemented during my passive voice revisions.

Still, she marked me down in believability with this sentence: "How did she find him without his knowing?" The opening scene is the heroine walking into the hero's loft office.

Fact: Earlier in the story they set up a rendezvous point where she failed to show at their agreed time. (The loft office.) This is where she goes to meet him once she is able in the judged scene. No need for detective work, she simply shows where she is supposed to. The gun she's packing is the surprise.

Sooooo...why am I typing all of this out? Am I bitter? I know it might come off that way but I'm really not. I liked a lot of the feedback I gained and because of it, maybe I'll clarify some things in the chapter and see if my agent likes it better.

I also received a few little tidbits here and there that I wouldn't have noticed if not for the contest like typos. A dangling modifier. A repetitive word.

I think entering a contest is a great thing...even a middle-of-the-book one though you'll have to put up with assumptions. ::grins::

BUT, for those of you who have asked me about why I put up money to get crappy comments, I have to say it is all for the critiquing, NOT a win and not all of the comments are crappy. LOL These judges are very much like our audience with a dash of delusional grandeur. Weed out the good tidbits and your writing WILL be stronger.

That's my 2% or a dollar anyway.

I would love to hear contest stories, good and bad.



Patti Shenberger said...

Allure, very interesting post! I am not a contest whore at all. I would rather spend my 42 cents or email a query and take my chances. But that's just me. I am a firm believer though that if more than one person says the same thing about a piece of work, then consider it. If only one, it may only be their opinion alone. Keep up the great blogs!

Sue C. said...

Great example of the ambiguous nature of contests. I don't enter for the reason that most commentary is so subjective as to be close to useless. I also don't feel I should have to pay for the few gems that I could get from contest commentary. I get those from critique groups. If I thought that entering a specific contest would give me a good shot at getting my work in front of an editor or agent, I would consider entering. You write of the judges as being representative of our reading audience. I agree, but that doesn't make them good judges of what will sell or give them the ability to explain well what they like and why. My primary audience is an editor, because I have to sell to him or her before I can ever sell a book to a reader. That said, your blog makes a number of valid and good points about the potential benefits of entering contests. Each author needs to decide what works for him or her. In addition, you cannot know if contests will work for you or not unless you try them (which I have). So I'd recommend that after careful research into specific competitions writers try two or thre to discover how beneficial contests might be. JMHO.
Sue C.

Ava March said...

Hey AVS!

Wonderful post. I agree with Patti and Sue, especially Sue's comment about how an editor is an author's primary audience. Authors have a different perspective than editors/agents. Trouble is with contests, you have to please the author judges to get to the final round editor/agent judges.

That being said, I used to be a contest whore. I've entered quite a few of them and after a couple, you realize when to throw a score sheet away and when to keep them. You will get a fair share of off the wall comments (as you illustrated in your post) and judges who don't seem to understand how to correctly judge what they are given. But that's the nature of contests and the volunteer judging system. You have to take the bad with the good, and decide if the good is worth the entry fee.

Honestly, I learned a lot more by judging contests than entering contests. Judging forces you to be objective and identify what you like and didn't like in a book. Then you can take that objectivity to your own books. Odd, the way something not quite right won't stand out in your own work until you see someone else do it in theirs.

Karen K. said...

Writing contests are like chili contests. I might rate one taste of chili higher because it's memorable. Would I want to eat a whole bowl? The answer is no.

A chapter from a book which reads well in the context of a 100,000 word story might not compete well. I've learned to spice up the excerpt for it to compete better.