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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Misc Writing Contest Thoughts

Maybe it's because I have two packets of entries to judge for two separate contests, but my thoughts, once again, have turned to RWA chapter writing contests. The turnaround times are short, and the timing isn't the best for me, but at least these are short entries, which really helps.

A friend of mine has been judging contests recently and received two thank you notes! Her first two, ever. Which means most entrants are still not writing thank you notes. I won't get into that again, but I will repeat one thing--Thank your judges even if you think they're full of hot air.

But back to my friend. Two thank you notes, neither of whom said which entry was theirs or which contest they'd entered the story in. When I was on the contest circuit in 2001, there were unofficial "guidelines" on how to write thank you notes for judges and two of the things on the list were mention the title of your entry and mention the name of the contest. Is the information not out there any more? Oh, well, at least these two women were savvy--and well-mannered--enough to send a note.

Length of entries. I mentioned both these contests are short that I'm judging in. I won't judge long contests any more. I did it once, and that was enough. The amount of time it took from my life, and my own writing, was incredible for one thing, and for another, the editors and agents who say they know within a few pages whether or not the story is good are right on the money. For me, it's the writing. If the writing isn't sharp from the start, I've never seen it get any better. And 50 pages can seem like an eternity, especially when a judge is expected to write comments on the entry.

The comments. I always worry about these. I try as hard as I can to couch things in the kindest terms possible because I know from firsthand experience how much negative comments hurt, but I always worry about how successful I was. That's why I love the entries that have everything, and I feel, are ready to be published. I've had two of those in the years I've been judging. I've had two other entries where the writer had a great voice, lots of spark, but major plot problems. Those are fixable.

The hardest entries to judge are the ones that are competent in every way, but just, well, lack any spark. Sometimes I feel like I'm reading the writer's equivalent of Paint By the Numbers. It's so hard to comment on these stories because spark is subjective, isn't it? Just because someone didn't click with me, doesn't mean they wouldn't click with another judge. But at the same time, I owe my honest opinion. I just hate it, though. I'd rather judge an entry that needs a lot of work than one that's competent, but unexciting and/or unoriginal.

Why do I judge? For one thing, I feel like I should pay back for all the contests I entered, especially since my first sale was a direct result of a contest win. The second reason is I'd like to help out other writers. If something I spot can make a difference for them, that's fabulous. This happened for me, not on the contest circuit, but from an editor. She took the time to go through my full manuscript and pointed out things I'd never thought about. Her comments were one of the two final keys that helped me reach the stage where I was ready to be published. The third reason is finding that story that just shines. The one that has so much spark to it that you're excited that you were lucky enough to read it. That makes it all worthwhile.

I haven't started to read yet, so right now every entry holds potential to be one that gets me all excited. And as I think about beginning to judge, I also think about the writers and how they must feel, how I felt when I sent my entry off to a contest. Hopeful, nervous, eager, fretful--well, half a gazillion different things. I keep this in mind while I judge too, that this is someone's baby, the same way my stories, my heroes and heroines, are my babies. Here's to every entry being spectacular!

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