Thursday, April 29, 2010

Same Window, Different View

by Anita Mae Draper

This week I started on another segment of my writing journey . . . I'm a judge in a writing contest. Yes, I know, I can feel you cringing. Trust me, I’m doing the same.

Although I want to take this next step in my evolution, I don’t feel qualified. I pity the writer whose work I’m judging. However, I’ve entered many contests these past few years and expect others to judge my work. For the most part, those first-round judges started out just like me. And so when the call came and the need arose, I stepped forward to accept my responsibility.

I now have 3 entries sitting in my laptop. And the weight of those words are heavier than I ever imagined.

But I'm not alone. Other writers, more experienced than I, are just an email away. And I have a judging package with all the information I need.
I just need to go down the list and give each aspect of the story a score like so:

1. Excellent, ready to submit
2. Almost there, needs only a little polish
3. Average, shows promise
4. Below average, needs work
5. Poor

It seems so easy and it would be if I had an entry that was off-the-top stupendous or below-the-belt bad. Except my entries are middle-of-the-road average. Nice stories but they don't take my breath away.

When I was an entrant, the scores showed me where I needed to improve. But as a judge, there seems to be one huge jump between:

2. Almost there, needs only a little polish; and

3. Average, shows promise.

If I judge on the high side, am I helping the entrant, or am I giving her a false sense of her writing ability? And if I judge on the low side, I'm basically saying, "You look like the other chunks of coal. Keep brushing the dust off and one day you'll shine. Maybe."

Along with the contest entries, though, I’ve been thinking about the Saskatchewan Romance Writer’s (SRW) meeting I attended last weekend. The planned exercise was to critique snippets of stories posted by members on the SRW blog (private for members only). I waited until the last week to read the blog. My excuse being that I wanted the words to be fresh for the meeting. But then our internet service failed repeatedly over a four day span and the most I was able to do was skim through the offerings. So, I was inadequately prepared for the critique session. (Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your copies with me.) As anyone at that meeting could tell, I’m not a fast thinker and my mind went blank a few times. Later, I realized my criticism may have been constructive, but I sure didn’t pat anyone’s back and for that I’m sorry. Because I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t able to help others.

So that’s been on my mind this week as I read over the contest entries. I don’t want to rush them. I don’t want to judge them against each other. I don’t want to let my biases influence my judging.

As well as giving back some of what others have given me, this is supposed to be a learning experience all around. Other writers have said how much more they learned while judging, so I’m hoping some of that will rub off on me.

Here is a checklist I made to reinforce the one I received with the judging package:

- refer to the judge’s checklist often

- set aside my own personal biases

- encourage often (smiley faces help)

- don’t assume the green squiggly lines are correct

- don’t assume a red line is a misspelling

- check facts before making a comment

- clich├ęs are allowed in dialogue

- incorrect grammar is allowed in dialogue

- remember being on the other end

- and again, encourage often

This post was written over a couple days, interspersed with reading the contest entries. I’ve remembered that while I may not be an expert grammarian, I am an experienced reader and book reviewer. I may not know the proper names for the parts of a sentence, but I know if a sentence flows with rhythm and grace or is stilted and awkward. Come to think of it, here’s a few more if’s:

- If I’m falling asleep by the second page while drinking my third cup of coffee, there’s a good chance the story starts with an info dump.

- If her hands are flying and his eyes are burning, I’d say body parts have escaped.

- If every sentence ends or starts with ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, the characters should learn to keep quiet.

- If my head hurts after jumping repeatedly from one point of view (POV) to another in the same scene, I know I’m a victim of head-hopping.

- If my mind has wandered while reading the first paragraph or two, I know the story is lacking a hook.

On the other hand,

- If my cheek aches from pain and there’s a metallic taste in my mouth, I probably wish the story was longer.

- If I’m out of breath but haven’t gone anywhere, the story is action-packed.

- If my hair is standing on end or I'm trying to hold it in, I've suffered a fright.

- If I turn the last page and my shoulders slump because I’ve reached the end, I'll give high marks for plot. And entertainment value. Maybe charaterization. And probably setting since I completely forgot I'd been about to head to the bathroom when I started reading and now I'm in dire straights...

Question for the day... What do you think I need to know to judge effectively?


Vince said...

Hi Anita:

I have two suggestions on judging:

1) read the piece first as a fan seeking reading enjoyment and grade it as a whole. This is the grade that really counts. Then adjust the individual scores proportionately to reflect the total grade.

2) Ask yourself: “Would I invest my own money publishing this entry”, that is, how much would you risk that the work would be successful? This may tell you what you really think of the work in ‘real world’ terms. Do this just to provide a fresh POV on the work.

BTW: is it too late for me to enter the contest? : )


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I think you've listed a lot of the qualities that a good judge needs. When I had the opportunity to judge in the Saskatchewan Romance Writers' "I Dare You" contest a few years ago, I tried my best to point out not just what I thought the writer was doing wrong, but also what she was doing right. You're so right about offering encouragement. I know that when I've been at the other end of the contest, it's easier to take criticism if some praise is thrown in once in a while. We tried very hard to build writers up rather than tearing them down.

I also found from entering contests myself that receiving only praise from a judge, while stroking the ego, doesn't always give me the information I need. In the last contest I entered, it was the judge who gave me the lowest scores who also gave me the most feedback on how to improve my work.

Best of luck,

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Vince, I hear you on the first point because that's what I'm doing.

Your 2nd point comes from the heart of a businessman, heh. I'll have to really think about that one, for sure.

Thanks for your unique insight.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, I've had the same experience with judges. Even though I don't like the lower scores, if they're accompanied by reasons and encouragement, they go a lot farther in helping me.

Yes, the part I didn't do at the SRW meeting was to encourage them for what they were doing right. *sigh. I'll have to make time to go back on the blog and add my complete comments.

I joined the SRW in the last year of the We Dare You contest so I missed all that fun. :)

Thanks, Jana,


Karyn Good said...

Reading your post I think you're well on your way to being a respectful, honest and fair judge.

Since I've never been a contest judge and have only entered one contest to date I'm not sure I have anything to add to what is already a great list. (insert encouraging smiley face).

Except, have fun and enjoy the emerging promise of the entries.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn, that's a very good point. These entries are written by writers just like you and I who are on the cusp of their journey. I'm amazed at the diversity of cultures and abilities displayed in the 3 stories.

Thanks for the reminder.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

While I didn't have anything up for critique at the meeting, Anita, I felt your critiques were very helpful and encouraging. It's one of the perks of a group session, people get remarks on good things from everywhere, so every single one of us doesn't have to do it. Besides, it's about your tone as well. You never implied things were bad or a failure, just that something wasn't working for you and you felt they could improve it. I have to remind myself to note the things I like as well, as I think I approach critiques thinking the good parts are the benchmark, so I'm helping the writer find the spots they need to bring up to that same level. The unspoken "everything is fine" doesn't work though :)

I think the big thing is to provide options as well as critique, and then the praise can be optional. I got some feedback on a monologue draft recently, and the best critiques were the ones that mentioned both what was working (and their impressions of the character, which let me know if it came across right) as well as what didn't feel right, and how they thought it might be improved, or prodding questions so I can figure out my own answer. The least helpful critique mentioned same vagaries like "I don't think you've gone far enough into the character" without any indication of what they might have wanted, how they'd like to see it expanded, etc. Since I already felt like more would just be overkill, I really don't know what they wanted :/

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Hayley, I really appreciate you saying what you heard me say at the mtg. I guess I wasn't as bad as I remembered.

Your comment about the judge making a comment without further explanation has happened a few times to me too. I'd much rather they just kept the thought to themselves because all it did was send me on a bout of second-guessing and time-wasting.

So thank you, Hayley, I'll make a notation to my list that if I can't adequately explain what I mean, then I'll keep the comment to myself.


connie said...

Hi Anita,

I don't feel competent to critique. I would always try not to upset the writer or discourage them, so I wouldn't be honest and honesty, hard as it may be, is crucial.

My contribution to critiques is in the way of facts and giving them to others to help (I hope) e.g. I copied some pages of a book regarding two trees someone had set you wrong about. I hope it didn't seem critical. I wanted it to help.

Similarly, I told Jessica police neither like nor will work with reporters easily. Nine years of working with police gave me a 'certain confidence' in my judgement there. I don't say it if I don't know whether I am right or not. BTW, I followed my statement with an email to her suggesting how she could still have a dectective and reporter work together.

What I am saying has been said but I repeat: contestants need encouragement to keep them going but they also need honesty; to have where they are wrong pointed out to them or the critique is useless. They can only be stronger for it. Candy and candid.

Vince has an interesting idea. Provided any of us had the money, would we personally invest. Good tip.

Judging by what I know of your writing experience, how you gained from judges yourself and ability to be fair and honest, I think you already have your answer - you will be a fair, honest and helpful judge. And you will take the time to give it your best shot.

Never hearing back from the contest judges has to be the worst - and most unfair. An email saying it got there doesn't take long. I am still waiting to hear back from two and I paid the postal service to tell me!

Silver James said...

Anita, I wish every judge were as diligent as you are! One of the hardest things about judging a contest is putting aside our own preferences as readers in order to be as fair and balanced to the writer as possible. I personally don't like 1st person and tend not to buy books written in that POV. Even so, as a judge, I want to look at the writer's storytelling ability. Sometimes, 1st POV works beautifully. Sometimes, the writer uses it because its a current trend. I will sometimes suggest rewriting the story in 3rd (and in once case, I actually suggested rewriting from 3rd to 1st--oh horrors!), with the caveat of the writer deciding which "voice" sounded the best to them.

When the writing is really bad, I try to find something to praise while suggesting the entrant continue studying her craft.

Interesting topic today and I think you've discovered a great way (and one that certainly works for you!) to judge.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Connie, I'm glad you gave me those pages on trees. Thank you.

As for your critique, it's always better to ground your words with experience like you did with the cop/reporter thing. That's not to say that it's true in all cases or that the writer will want to use it, but that kind of information is invaluable to a writer.

I value your opinion, so thank you for telling me what kind of judge you think I'll make.


Helena said...

I have not done much judging, but if I ever do it again, your checklist and tips will be a very valuable resource. I was always afraid of missing something crucial, particularly something that should be praised. Like you, I always tried for balance. (Have to admit it's hard when you can't find much about the story to like!)

I'm sure you will do a great job; you are approaching your assignment in a very thoughtful and thorough manner. I haven't entered many contests, but I hope when I do that there will be a judge like you reading my work.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Well Silver, regardless of what I said in the post, I'm glad I didn't get one that was really bad because I would have been horrified to judge it.

Thanks for the vote of confidence. We'll see if my judging works for me later when the 'off' ones go to mediation. LOL


Anita Mae Draper said...

Helena, you shouldn't go just by my list though, because it's only a supplement to the real judges list. The real one includes things like conflict, tension, setting, dialogue, etc, etc.

The part of that list that worries me is that my story was lacking in conflict until the Inkies got ahold of it. I'm afraid I'm going to miss something like that in these entries.

It sounds cheesy, but I think I'm just going to have to pray first and then judge the best I can.

Thanks Helena, I'm really glad you stopped in to give your take on it. :)


Anita Mae Draper said...

Oh - and in case anyone is wondering, the bottom photo is my eldest daughter, Crystal. I caught her pilfering through her dreadlocks when she was home last Christmas. :)


patti said...

Boy, you got lots of great suggestions!

Hmmm, I really don't put much stock in this judging stuff. Have just seen and heard too much...

What does God say in our hearts?
THAT'S a vote that counts...

Molli said...

I enjoyed this post, Anita, and has been noted in other comments I think yo have crafted an excellent set of guidelines. Good on you!
We all need encouragement, and as Connie said, honesty is crucial in critiquing comments provided it's delivered in a constructive fashion.
I consider your comments at last week's meeting both appropriate and appropriately delivered.
One last note: I try to add the same comments when I judge a contest as I did at the end of the critique session. It's important that every writer take from the comments what has value to them, rather than accepting every comment as valid. It's also important to remember that if you're hearing the same feedback from a number of sources it's probably valid even if you don't like it.
Hope you find the experience as valuable as I have. I know you'll give it your best.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Molli. I'll take your comments to heart especially since they're coming from someone with a lot of experience judging these contests.

Yes, I agree about the comments. When I'm making revisions, I always line up my judges' comments at the bottom of my screen and then I go through the text, para by para, seeing what they see. If only one judge makes a comment on something, I may dismiss it. Other times it's something everyone else has missed, too. But if 2 or 3 judges have picked something out, I take a good hard look at it because that's a red flag to me.

Thanks for giving your opinion, Molli.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Patti - the problem with that is we don't always hear what God is trying to tell us.

Sometimes I just need it written out in black, white and red, you know?