By Morgan Wyatt
Your chapter or writing group has probably hosted a contest at some time to make money. The contest theme was something that most of the members felt they could identify.
Ironically when it came time to judge almost no one wanted to—or the few who were willingly did so almost grudgingly. Sometimes the judges had to be brought in from other chapters. What gives? Why the hesitation to step up to the judge’s seat? It could be because most of the club members may have experienced a toxic contest judge encounter. Their worst fears include becoming the toxic judge.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence as a participant and a judge. As a participant, I am alternately excited and terrified about the contest. Excited because contest organizers promote the contest as a breakthrough for beginning novelist, hey, that’s me. Terrified, because I’ve heard all the horror stories from my sister writers. Judges who make Marquis de Sade look like a choir boy.
One friend has decided to stay away from contests after a judge told her it was painful to read her story. Another judge commented on her critique that she wanted the characters to die because they were so horrible. Some judges even ridiculed the names of the characters. The stories go on and every writer has her own crazed contest judge story to tell. It is no secret that many writers limp away bloody from a contest; some even swearing not only never to enter a contest, but even never to write again.
The real question is why does a judge use an axe when an Exacto knife would do the job? Before becoming a judge, I was asked to attend a judging seminar. My experience as a book reviewer got me in the judge door, that and breathing. The first thing I was taught was not to critique the book as if I were a high school English teacher. Spilling red ink all over the paper denoting fragments and run on sentences just to show the writer how worthless her work is.
The submission as a whole is how a judge should look at an entry instead of nitpicking over a misplaced comma or an awkward adverb. What the persnickety judge is really doing is rewriting the story in her own voice. Sure, she thinks it reads better with her tweaks. Does nitpicking really help a writer? Most of us can use a grammar website, grammar check or a colleague to check mechanics. We don’t need the help of sadistic grammarian.
What we do need is someone who can see the whole picture—that’s the job of the judge. It is also the judge’s job to see what is done right and comment on it. When this happens, a writer can create something better than the original. Sometimes this does happen when a writer enters a contest. What usually happens is you get a panel of three judges consisting of the rabid grammarian, the wise judge, and a lackluster judge who manages to say almost nothing. Being human, most of us focus on the grammarian or maybe she is just someone who enjoys exerting power. Rather like the critique group newbie who goes overboard trying to prove that she can spot mistakes.
It is amazing that writers, who believe so much in their craft, willingly hand over their creation to an unknown person. What is more unbelievable we take the unknown judge’s word as the ultimate truth? This person who may or may not have an agenda can stop us in our writing tracks if we let her. This is where a circle of writing friends comes in handy; people willing to tell us if a story works in a non-bloodletting fashion.
It is a mystery that one judge can love a story, while another merely likes it and another hates it; however, is this so different than our own personal choices in reading material? My sister likes true crime; my other sister prefers biographies, while I am a romance junkie. Different judges like different genres and styles. My best advice is concentrate on the person who liked the story. She represents the reader you want to hook. Armed with the confidence that your submission has merit, then, look at the toxic judge’s comments to see if they have merit. Do contests help the writer on her career path? That’s debatable.
On one hand, I’ve been a finalist in a half dozen contests and haven’t been offered a contract yet. Then on the other hand, several published writers remarked that they never were contest finalists. Ironically, they found agents and editors to be an easier sale than most of the contest judges. With this in mind, I try to be a useful judge who notices what is done well, as opposed to just seeing flaws. Keep in mind, judging is always subjective. What I think is a flaw or a mistake may not even make another judge or an agent blink.
Next time, your baby comes back all bloody from a contest, keep in mind it’s all subjective. When your loved one has talked you out of tossing your computer out the window, then you might be able to reread the judges’ critiques. So do contests have value? Possibly, but not the breakout novel success the contest hinted. Rather contests test your resolve, rather like Pilates for the spirit. After countless rejections, a few long nights of curling into the fetal position with a blanket and a romance novel for solace, you emerge resilient ready to write again.