Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesday - Contest Craft: Submitting to Them and Judging Them

By Sandra Elzie

Have you ever submitted a sample of your writing as an entry to a contest, knowing that you were opening up your work for some faceless, unknown person to judge? You might reason that they don’t know your characters the way you do You know what? You’re right! They spend a short time with your characters where you’ve spent hours, days, months or maybe even years getting to know them.

Personally, I’ve entered several contests and when I got the submission back, I was surprised at how much red writing there was on my formerly nice, clean, white pages. After the initial frown, I sat down and read the suggestions and comments and went on to use most, if not all, of their suggestions. My manuscript was better for it. I feel that even if I don’t win the prize (darn it!), at least I’m getting great input from someone who is looking at my work with a fresh eye and with more writing experience than I have.

I used to wonder if the judges really read the entire entry, or just scanned it quickly and wrote a comment or two just to get through with the assignment. Well, at least from my experience, I can reassure you that they do actually read the synopsis that you send along with your selection, and they do actually try to understand the story and your characters.

Recently I got an e-mail from a friend of mine asking if I’d ever considered judging a writing contest. Well, I never had, but it sounded like it might be something different to do and it might also be educational. It might give me some insight toward what the judges were told to evaluate, and that would help me on the next contest that I enter.

So I shot off an e-mail to the organization indicating my willingness to work with them. By-the-way, it was not Georgia Romance Writers, but I won’t mention the contest by name since I would hate for one of the hopefuls to read my blog and wonder if I was the nasty judge who put all the red comments on her work of art.

Here’s what I learned about contests from this one experience. Hopefully it will give you an idea what the judges are looking for when they read your work.

First and foremost, don’t make spelling errors. There’s no excuse for them since the computer underlines them in red and they are so easy to correct with the the help of spellcheck.

The next biggest mistake I found was sticking to one POV. New writers have a tendency to “head-hop” back and forth too often. If you make this mistake, it immediately labels you as a newer writer. (Ugh!) Another mistake I saw that had the neon signs flashing “NEW WRITER!” was the use of adjective after adjective to describe the scenery, the hero and heroine and their emotions. The worst part is that some of these words were too big for the script or scene. There was slang some of the general public would never have heard, requiring them to grab their handy dandy Webster’s Dictionary in order to know what you were trying to say. Keep it simple. Tell the story and leave most of the flowery adjectives out.

Compare the next two sentences: Her eyes were immediately drawn to the shiny belt buckle hovering just below his waist. She blinked, quickly dragging her eyes up across his bare chest to lock with his deep-set gray eyes. Versus, Her eyes sparkled like a deep, dark blue pool of passion as they gazed longingly at his jeans where the huge, jewel-studded belt buckle refracted the light from the brilliant sun that shown through the wall of glass that overlooked the lake. She allowed her blue orbs to make a slow, sensual trip up his tight-muscled stomach, upward to his buffed pecs and… do I have to go on? Hopefully you have the picture.

Anyway, the other thing I saw in the entries was that love scenes were almost always written in the male POV, which I found interesting. I wonder if these writers, whomever they are, chose this POV because of the Alpha-male syndrome? Do women want their males to dominate them in bed?

Then I realized how easy it is to guess, rightly or wrongly, how young the writer is. I mean, when a love scene includes the two people doing things that are anatomically impossible, it makes a judge wonder. Also, if you’re writing “love” scenes, the male needs to show some concern and consideration for his beloved female. He should show some respect for her, not use her for his own pleasure and then walk away. Slam, Bang, Thank you ma’am doesn’t go over well with the majority of today’s female readers. And if the male dares to treat her that way, she will probably toss him out on his…backside.

Okay, so what contests should you enter? Some are free and some charge fees. So if you are considering a contest that charges a fee, determine if that money will be worth what you have a chance to gain. Maybe it’s a monetary prize. That’s always good, but what if the prize is a critique from an agent or editor in New York? What if the prize is a contract? Maybe just being a finalist would get your manuscript in front of an editor who works for a publisher that you are interested in. Only you can weight the cost and determine if it’s worth it. I will say, however, count the value of a published author or maybe an editor critiquing your work.

In summary, watch your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Tell the story in an interesting way without trying to impress your reader (or the judge) with all the flowery adjectives, and make your story or scene believable. And, when you're thinking about entering contests, don't forget that the prestigious Georgia Romance Writer's Maggie Contest is coming up!

Have any of you had any experiences with contests that you’d be willing to share? How about judging? Have any of you judged contests and would you be willing to share with us some of the pitfalls that we should avoid?

Lastly, for all you avid romance readers, do you want your Alpha male to dominate your heroine in bed? I’d love to hear your comments!


Tami Brothers said...

Hey Sandy,

Great visuals. I never thought about judging a contest to learn more about my own writing. Although, I do have to say that I definitely have an easier time editing and finding errors in someone else's writing. Mine, not so much.... Darn it. I really wish I could though.

I can totally agree about the experience of the writer who is writing love scenes. I actually read a story I wrote back when I was first married and was surprised at how many big, descriptive words I used. I KNOW that I found these words in other stories I wrote and thought it would help with my own. I know this because I have no clue today what some of them meant. (had to grab the dictionary to figure them out...grin....).

Thanks a ton for this post.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Okay, as to the Alpha Male in bed. A great lover taking charge and considerate of the woman, yes! Rough, ready, and just plain dominating, NO!

I am entering my first contest, Georgia Romance Writer's Maggies, this year. But, before I will enter, I will have had my work critiqued, spellchecked, and well-revised. The last thing I want is to look unprofessional. What I do want is not just to "win the prize," but to get the oh so valuable critique from a published author.

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Tammy,

Yes, I agree that it's easier to find the mistakes of others and, like you, I went back to some of my earlier writing and cringed.
Some things get better with experience and age (length of time spent practicing) and in most cases, writing is one of them.


You are so right on the money about that Alpha Male. I don't mind him leading as long as he treats me well and is considerate. The only thing better than a sexy time in the hay is reading a well-written love scene where the male knows how to show his love and respect to his lady.

Susan May said...

Nice post. I've just judged my first contests. I'm finding it interesting. For a number of years I wasn't such I knew enough to judge, but I decided it was time to give back and learn something in the process. I've thought most of the entries were pretty good but have also from some problems. POV hasn't come up but a couple of times. Not making sense with body movements or over writing seems to be the biggest problem. Each judge comes into a read with did ideas.
I will judge again. It has been a great learning experience.

Sandra Leigh said...

First and foremost, don’t make spelling errors. There’s no excuse for them since the computer underlines them in red and they are so easy to correct with the the help of spellcheck.

One more thing - If I use the word 'to', when I should be using 'too', or 'loose' when what I mean is 'lose', spellcheck won't notice. I need to read, and read again, what I've written, and correct what spellcheck can't.

Carol Burnside said...

I'm in agreement with Debbie on the Alpha male. Couldn't have said it better.

I've entered numerous contests, done miserably in some, won others. I've also judged several. You're right about seeing the new writer clearly from their work. Sometimes I have to rein myself in with the comments because I want to help them so badly. Two things I see a lot of is a new writer TELLING the story rather than showing it and laundry-list descriptions or action that is supposed to bridge and has no significant bearing on the story.

Ex: Mary drove to a nearby grocery store. She bought eggs, flour, milk and her favorite chocolate bars. Struggling with the bags, she dug for her keys, then drove home and pulled into the garage with a few minutes to spare.

Better: Mary bought the things she needed and returned home with a few minutes to spare.

I've had both judges comments that I thought were very helpful as well as kind, and I've had those that were sublimely ridiculous. An example of the latter would be where one judge dinged me for having too many characters whose names started with the same letter. Unfortunately, some of the characters she mentioned weren't in my manuscript. Oops!

One thing that experience taught me was not to judge in a hurry or when I was tired or irritated. :)

Anna Steffl said...

Great post, Sandy. I judged my first contest last year. It was a learning experience (but not one I'd undertake without having a few contests under by belt... and having listened to every word our benevolent GRW published authors said).

The biggest issues I found were:
1)too much telling

2)off-putting characters -- Of course, the hero and heroine must have flaws, but airheads, unrelenting passive aggressives, and misogynists are really hard sells in romance. You need to be a top-notch writer to deal with these folks.

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Susan,

I loved your comment about wanting to "give back" That's what it's all about. Each of us has had help along the way and when we have an opportunity to help others, we need to do it. Lead by example, my father always said.

Sandra Leigh,

You are soooo right about rereading and rereading to catch those things that spell-check misses. There weren't to...whoops!...too many of those in the ones I judged, but those are also the ones that a judge will consider carelessness. Great point.

Carol, Just like you, I soooo wanted to help them write the section better instead of just judging the writing and adding a comment to send them, hopefully, in the right direction. It's not the judges "job" to write the story.

Anna, I agree with your off-putting characters being a turnoff. That's exactly what an inconsiderate, love em' and leave em' Alpha Male is to me. When she's in love and he's in mating season, you just want to hit the guy!

Berta Platas said...

Good post, Sandy. I sent a couple of stories out to contests before I was published, but was disappointed to get a score rather than comments. I never entered the Maggies because I was always in between projects or some other poor excuse. Feedback was exactly what I needed. I still do. Other than PASIC, though, I don't think there's a contest for the unpublished work of published authors.

Too bad I can't send something in under a pseudonym!

When I judge a contest, I read every entry through one time, set them aside for two weeks, then read them again more carefully, with pen in hand to make notes. It helps to read all the way through once, because sometimes the answer to a question is just two pages ahead, changing a comment of "why would she do this?" to "tell us this sooner."

Sandy Elzie said...

Great advice Berta. However, you need to get that Maggie entry in! The Maggie entry I submitted last year came back with some great comments about improving the manuscript.

I read through the entire entry before starting to make comments, but I didn't try putting them aside for a couople weeks. Of course, I only had a few weeks turn-around, so that would have left me a little short on time.

Hope to see you on stage at the Maggies! (g)

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Funny you should write this, Sandy. I'm writing my Galley article on what I learned from judging the Golden Hearts contest. I recommend that everyone eligible sign up to do so because you will see things as flaws then realize you have made the same mistake. There were so many annoying mistakes that I would have never been able to see in my work without seeing someone else do it first. Here are just a few of the things I discovered--you GRW members will have read the Galley to get my complete, no-holds-barred response:

1. Make sure your voice isn't annoying.
2. Your synopsis should not include the mechanics of each love scene.
3. Category romances should not visit more than two different heads, certainly not five heads in fifty pages.
4. Consider the ick! factor. Maybe it's just me but a hero in his 40s and a 21 year old heroine wasn't something I was interested in reading.

And THE most important thing of all:
5. You must have good internal reasons why hero and heroine can't be together. (I am so guilty, guilty, guilty!) No matter how intriguing your story of tornados, cow vaccinations, evil hair-dressers, spies taking down a rival catering business, etc. seem to you, your reader only wants to find out more about your two characters, what philosophical differnces keep them apart, and how they will eventually overcome.

Great post with wonderful food for thought! It was funny, interesting, and definitely cool!

Linsey Lanier said...

Great post, Sandy,

That example with the "pool of passion" and "blue orbs" was a good one. Not only is it full of over-flowery description, it has severe POV problems. It wants to be from the heroine's POV, but states things that should be from the hero's viewpoint. How does she know her own eyes are sparkling? Karen White would cringe!

Some great advice here, from everyone.


Sandy Elzie said...

Sally & Linsey,

thank you for your comments. Yes, I saw some of my own mistakes in the writing of others, but mostly I saw my early mistakes. The group I judged gave every appearance of being young...in age and in writing experience. It seemed they treated "love" and "sex" as synonymous and their "sex" scenes were mostly lust. Maybe it's because I'm older, but I wanted tender, considerate, understanding passion where both of them really cared about each other. Oh well....

Sally, I can't wait to read your no-holes-barred article in the next Galley.

Thanks ladies,

Nicki Salcedo said...

Guilty as charged, Sandy! I promise not to do any of the things you listed for Maggies or Golden Heart this year. I'll also keep my fingers crossed to get you as my judge so you can slash and hack my pages. Great advice.

As for the alpha male thing... I'm very sleepy at the present moment and hopes he just fluffs my pillow and lets me sleep. Wait, you mean my fictional hero! He should take charge subtly, but with confidence. :-)

(Did I make any typos?)

Linsey Lanier said...

Oh, that passage I lit into wasn't from a real entry, was it? I thought you made it up as an example.

Hope I didn't step on anyone's toes. My apologies, if I did. I know I've written some doozies in my time, too.

Also, the more I write, the worse my spelling seems to get. Could not live without spellchecker! :)


Cyrano said...

Sorry it took me so long to comment. I was a busy bee yesterday!
I judged a contest last year and really enjoyed it. One of the entries was so wonderful I gave it a perfect score. Her writing sang to me. Oh it was amazing. And I was even happier to hear later on that she had finaled and then took first place.
It was a great experience.
Now on to your questions.
As I've mentioned before(People are probably getting tired of hearing it)I'm writing erotic romance right now. I've written 4 love scenes in 100 pages so far and the dominance factor has gone back and forth. I like it that way. Give him some power, but give my heroine some too!!
Great post.
have a nice morning.

EC Spurlock said...

As a professional copy editor, I agree with Sandra about not trusting your spellcheck (it will only tell you that the word is spelled correctly; it WON'T tell you if it's the correct word!), and also suggest double-checking words you don't use familiarly with a dictionary before using them in your writing. I have seen even published authors pull synonyms out of a thesaurus without first checking whether they have the connotation that the author intends. I have a favorite author who does this constantly; I love her stories, but sometimes her word choices drive me up the wall! I know what she MEANS to say, but the particular word she chooses often throws the meaning of the sentence off in a totally different direction. Or at the very least makes me stop and say "Huh?"

I have entered contests for many reasons, and have usually gotten my money's worth, if not more. At first I entered just to find out whether I was good enough, whether it was worth it for me to continue trying to improve or whether I was hopeless and should just give up. When I got positive, constructive feedback, I worked on the problems that were pointed out to me, then entered other contests to see whether I had corrected those problems. When I started finaling, I entered specifically to get my story in front of particular editors that I felt were likely to pick it up and to whom I would otherwise not have access. I always chose the contest I entered on the basis of the final judge.