Thursday, February 12, 2009

Contest Judges' Comments

Entering a writing contest isn't for everyone. Not only are you putting your precious words out there for strangers to critique but, a lot of what they say is going to be their own personal opinion.

The following examples are all from my mss Charley’s Saint which has finaled once each in the long contemporary (think Harlequin SuperRomance) and the short contemporary (think Harlequin American) categories. The secular judges like it but not the inspy ones which is strange because I wrote it as an inspirational romance. It’s the story of Pastor Henry and Charlene. These 2 characters were lovers as teenagers but he betrayed her and she never forgot it. Henry has never stopped loving Charlene and now, finally, it looks like she needs him.

Here's the first 2 paras of the mss:

On Valentine’s Day, Charlene Cameron stepped out onto her verandah, shivering in the cold February air and rubbed her belly as if trying to feel the miniscule body forming inside. Her eyes searched the flat, snow-covered North Dakota prairie surrounding her farm.
So much for fairy tales. Not a knight in shining armor in sight. Why, she’d even provide the horse if only she could get a man to rescue her.

Now here’s what the judges thought:

    - This paragraph provides more of a hook. I’d consider moving it to the beginning, then add something about her shivering in the cold and staring across the prairie. (The judge placed this after the 2nd para)

    - Although I feel you are attempting to allow your heroine to grow, her weakness seems overdone. It is my opinion that a true heroine does not need to be rescued and is willing to help herself.

    - Okay, I already officially love this.

    - On Valentine’s Day - TELLING, also with WHY at the beginning of this sentence, it sounds odd - like a question but it's not - maybe try rewording.

    - Great opening!

    - Valentine's Day and a baby... Nice contrast with the next sentences. (It was inserted after the first sentence)

    - Telling us it's Feb is repetitious since you already said V-Day. Otherwise, nice lines!

    - From this next judge’s remarks, I’m presuming she read first then went back and wrote this which she located after the first sentence: What is she feeling? Is she sad or fearful about the child? After having read this through I didn’t get a “feel” for her emotional state about the child only her anger against Henry. Since she proclaims not to believe in god, is she contemplating an abortion? If not, why? Does she understand abortion is still murder?

Here’s another example:

Sounds drifted from the front foyer. The stamping of feet, sliding of a zipper, rustle of clothes, grunt of a man, all told her Henry was planning to stay awhile.

    - Telling! Try rewording to ‘show’ this to the reader. Using direct thoughts in her deep pov will help. The start of this sentence is great…

    - Nice Sensory Detail.

In this next example, Charlene phones the parsonage late at night and another woman answers. After hanging up, Charley sits there thinking about Henry and their history together:

An image of Henry and Trisha stayed in her mind. She didn’t believe Henry would have a dalliance with another woman after proposing to her. But, Trisha had never hidden her feelings for the good pastor.
And, Henry hadn’t always been good...

    - Nice echo of the word 'good' with contradictory meanings.

    - Love this last line.

    - Even after becoming a minister? Or only before?

    - I use blue text to indicate things I especially like. (The whole passage in question was in blue.)

    - Charlene is telling me she blames Henry again.

That last judge had a real problem with Charlene and I have no idea how she interpreted that because Charlene was referring to the fact they’d been lovers therefore Henry wasn’t a saint. Like I said, it's only that judge's opinion and in this case I'm ignoring it.

This next one is Henry’s proposal scene – it’s near the beginning of the story so it’s not like I’m giving anything away:

He leaned forward, clasping his hands on the table and tucking them under his chin. “But I’ve prayed about it. I’ve prayed that God would provide me with a wife. Someone to share my life. And every time I ask Him, the only face that appears before me is you.” He shrugged. “So here I am.”

    - I love the set up. You've given us two people at odds in a situation where there has to be suspicion of motives and differing priorities and made an offer of a convenient marriage believable

    - This is a highly improbable situation for an inspirational story. If he has prayed for a wife, it stands to reason God will want him to have a woman who shares his faith.

What about one using description:

She drank in the sight of Henry in her kitchen, from his dark brown cords to his light brown hair. He turned his head, his blue eyes a perfect match for the bit of tie she saw above his tan sweater. He waggled his eyebrows.

    - Nice way to work in his physical description.

    - SHE drank in the sight OF HIM, from his dark brown cords to his light brown hair. He turned his head, his blue eyes a perfect match for the bit of tie EMERGING ABOVE THE NECKLINE OF his tan sweater. He waggled his eyebrows.

    - Why? Did he catch her staring?

    - He waggled his eyebrows. [nice]

    - Think about this a minute. Her eyes must have gone up and down, up and down the man if she sees his cords and his hair, then his eyes, then his tie and sweater, but then—whoop! She’s looking at his eyebrows. Can you trace her eyes from cords to his head and that’s when she sees his eyebrows waggling?

I had a small problem with FBP (Flying Body Parts). I might note that this was all from one judge:

    - She saw his eyes drift out the window

    - Her jaw dropped.

    - He lifted a hand,

    - They’re eyes locked

And finally, this next judge put a smile on my face.

Snorting derisively, she folded her arms across her chest.

    - Show, don’t tell and avoid abundant adverbs. In addition this (derisively) is what I call a 50¢ word. Since we're to keep our vocabulary level down, I've heard it's best to avoid words the average reader might not understand and use what I call 5¢ words instead. I make my choice of words based upon what would be understood by a dear friend of mine who devours romances but doesn't have the command of language you obviously do. (Yeah, I can tell you're sharp.:-) You may disagree, and that's fine. I just want to pass on what I've learned the hard way.

I'd like to send out a big thank you to all those people who take the time to judge these contests. I might not accept and use every suggestion I receive, but I do treasure them and appreciate the time and effort that is expended on my behalf. Thank you.

Did you like reading the judges' comments? Can you see how different people interpret a scene differently? Do you think you'd like to try the contest route?


Anonymous said...

I do like reading the judging comments. I disagree with some and some are right one. In particular the second para being a better hook to start your story. The the first para does not need to disappear. "stepped out onto" remove "out" as filler. yada yada yada. :) Feb and V-day are redundant but it didn't stop me. Take the comments with a grain of salt. YOu are still the boss of your ms. And those are all just opinions.

Karen said...

What a great post, Anita. I find reading the comments such as the ones you listed helpful towards my own writing. Its interesting to read what the different judges have to say. I enjoy the flogging the quill blog and tuned into Miss Snark First Victim blog yesterday to read the many comments posted critiquing the submissions. I am a contest virgin but am thinking of entering but don't even know where to start looking.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Ain't contests grand? Give four judges a manuscript to judge and you'll likely get four different opinions.

Some of the opinions strike me as helpful, some picky, and some based on the judge's personal values that have nothing to do with the writing. Like Kelly said, you have to take the comments with a grain of salt.

Karen, I'd recommend the Toronto Romance Writers "Original Golden Opportunity Contest" to you as one worth entering. It runs every May. I entered last year and was impressed with the ease of entering (everything, including payment, is online),the level of organization, and the comments I got from the three judges. I also got the comments back in a reasonable length of time. Although I didn't win, and didn't even place (2 points out of 3rd place)the comments I got from the judge who gave me the lowest score (and took me out of the running) were the most helpful.


Karen said...

Thanks, Jana. I will check it out.

Suse said...

Hi Anita, a person definitely will get a mixed bag of comments from judges. We need to remember 2 things when reading through their comments: 1) the judge is a reader and therefore responds to our stories as such, and it can be good to know how our stories touch the reader. 2) the judge is a writer and therefore responds to writing issues they feel need to be addressed (this is usually based on their own experiences as a writer). Okay, there's a third thing to remember: the judge is a writer but maybe you're a better writer.

I haven't entered any contests lately, but I usually take comments with a grain of salt. However, if several judges are saying the same thing, then I know I need to rethink what I've written. OR if I've written something that I'm not sure is working, but I hope nobody notices and they do, then I definitely need to make changes.

Entering a contest is a good way to learn about writing and your story specifically. Just as judging a contest is a good way to learn and perfect the craft.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yeah, Kel, I do take them with a grain a salt and that's why both V Day and Feb are staying in. I like to think of it as emphasis for a romantic month rather than redundancy. :)

Nice seeing you here.

BTW I just got back from the city and my contest entry is on its way!!!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Karen.

If you want the lowdown on Contests, there are 2 sites I recommend - yes, I'm sure there are lots more, but these are the ones I like: is a blog started by 16 women - I think most, if not all, were contest junkies - and they started a blog to help each other toward publication. They announce contests, remind us of deadlines and give out advice. Their blog today is about characterization. Of the 16 writers who started, I believe only 7 are left on 'Unpubbed Island'. Part of the reason I feel so good about my lastest contest final is that 2 of the other finalists are Seekers. I'm floored.

You can also join: - I recommend signing up for the daily digests - and just watch the msgs go by. You will not be inundated with them, and they announce every contest and the particulars at a glance (like electronic entries and PayPal accepted) and you'll see all the contest results. You'll also see all the discussions. For the last couple days, the mbrs have been discussing 'Contest Judges and Low Scores'. Isn't that timely, eh.

I cannot believe how much my writing has improved since I entered my first contest last March. It's money well spent in my books.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana - that's exactly what happened to a couple of mine - the judge who gave me the lowest marks also wrote out the most detailed comments. So even though I didn't win that time, he/she gave me the means to do it next time.

For the Toronto contest, keep an eye on here:
They still have the 2008 stuff up but I'm sure the new stuff will be loaded soon. I was going to enter this last year but they didn't have an inspy category. It wasn't until months later that I found the courage to enter my inspy's as long and short comtemporary.

Thanks for the tips, Jana.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes, Suse, you're so right. I've mentioned before that I have a problem with pacing. It's hard to fix if you don't know what's broke. Telling me it's the pacing didn't help. Then one judge happened to show me. She said something like, this para slows down the pacing and you don't really need it. After I reread the para and those surrounding it, I realized she was right. That judge did that a few times in my entry until I began to have a clearer picture of how my pacing can be improved. Notice I didn't say 'clear' picture because I have a long way to go, but at least I'm headed in the right direction.

Thank you, Suse. So, why did you stop the contests, I wonder...

Suse said...

Hi Anita, it has been a long time since I've entered a contest, but I actually sent off an entry yesterday to The Writers' Union of Canada Postcard Story contest. I guess the reason I haven't been entering contests is because I've been either taking online writing courses or writing nonfiction for specific markets, so I haven't created anything to enter.

Janet said...

Wow, great post, Anita. It was interesting to read your work and then the judges' comments. And you have a very healthy perspective - take what feels right for you and leave the rest.

I've entered short story contests through Writers Digest (Show Us Your Shorts) - 1500 word maximum. It's really helped me prune my longer writing - at such a small word count, everyone of those words has to have impact. No wins yet - but the process is important to me. And writing short fiction works another part of my creativity.

Good luck with you most recent re-write/entry. Fingers crossed.


Anita Mae Draper said...

That's good, Suse, you're still working at your craft.

Good luck in The Writers' Union of Canada Postcard Story contest. I'll be rooting for you.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Janet. Like you, I also write short stories. eHarl has a biweekly challenge (due midnight tomorrow) with a 1000 word max. This is the one I mentioned yesterday when I said I had writer's block. If you remember in the Gift of Writing package we all rec'd my gift was written for a challenge. And yes, it definitely gets you writing tighter.

I will accept your good wishes with gratitude. I pulled an all nighter last night so I could get my entry out today and make the deadline. If this post doesn't make sense, it's becaue I'm falling asleep as I type. So, I'm heading to bed and will check back tomorrow to see what you've got up your sleeve. :)