Never again…ever…and I mean it this time!

Last night, I received my scores back from a contest I entered a couple months ago. It had been a very long time since I had entered one, but I wanted feedback on my latest project. Since I had received some pretty good feedback from this contest once before, I decided to go for it. The last time I entered, it was with my very first manuscript, long before any revisions. It was boring and filled with cliches, but I still got pretty nice comments. With my 5th manuscript, I didn’t necessarily expect to final, but I did expect a better response than I got. After all, my writing is tighter, I’m better versed in the time period and the premise is far more exciting!

I had one fairly high score from a judge that seemed to like almost everything about the story and my writing, so that was nice. But then…dum, dum, duuuuummmm…I got two judges who basically ripped it to shreds. Now, I’m not terribly upset about the ripping, per se. Not everyone is going to like everything. I know I’ve tossed highly acclaimed best-sellers aside because I just couldn’t get into them. But it’s the high and mighty attitude that comes with the scores that gets my goat.

One judge gave me a laundry list of Regency authors to read, none of whom are on my “favorite Regency authors” list. This immediately told me we were not on the same page as far as taste went. And what’s up with that, anyway? Do you really think I write Regency novels without ever having read a Regency novel. FYI, I’ve read a lot. Another suggested I find a critique group. Hah! Uh, I run a successful historical critique group, with several published authors, including myself.

I know, I know…I’m sure I sound bitter, and in some ways I am. But not necessarily with the judges. They’re just spouting their knowledge and opinions, and that’s fine. We all do that when we have an anonymous platform on which to stand. What I’m most upset about is the fact that I entered at all. I had sworn off contests for good more than a year ago, and I’ve been happy as a pig in youknowwhat ever since. So why did I feel the need to enter when I already have a wonderful publisher and I’m confident in the stories I like to write??

Well, I can’t really explain it. Temporary insanity, maybe?

But enough about me. Let’s talk about what this could do to a potential writer! What about a person who entered who is just starting out? What about a young writer looking for guidance who gets scores like mine back and tosses in the towel for good? I can think of several writers – NYT Best Sellers, for that matter – who received horrific contest scores on manuscripts that were soon after picked up and published by big NY houses. Thank goodness they didn’t listen to those opinionated judges who told them they “needed work.”

So this is my cautionary tale for the day. When you enter contests, enter because the final judge is someone you’d like to have see your work. And when you get your scores/comments back, take them with a grain of salt. Everyone has an opinion, and it may not serve you to know every opinion out there. Believe in yourself, believe in your work and the stories you enjoy writing. And don’t let anyone stop you from achieving your dreams, whatever they may be.

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16 thoughts on “Never again…ever…and I mean it this time!

  1. Great post, Jerrica. I haven’t ever entered a contest, primarily because of money. But another factor that has played into it is all the crazy scores I see coming for writers that I know are talented. It just doesn’t make sense to me. So, I’m not too upset that I haven’t entered.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Catherine, and good for you! You’re exactly right. It doesn’t make any sense most of the time. And it’s so not worth the frustration!! πŸ™‚

  3. Erin Kelly says:

    I’ve only entered 3 contests, one of which is still in progress. In the first contest, I got 2 good scores and one basement-bottom score. That particular judge basically said that I was better than the entry. Um, what?? She chewed my writing up one side and down the other. Honestly, it would have destroyed my confidence if I hadn’t had the support of my crit group and other writer friends.

    I had sent the very same entry to a second contest, and scored number 1 in the preliminary round. It was a confidence boost, but I also knew that it was really just the luck of the draw. I only entered the second and third contests because I really wanted to get in front of the final judges, so I was pleased to have accomplished my goal for that second contest.

    I think I will enter in the future if I really like the final judge, but if I don’t final, I think I need to not even *look* at the scores.

    And for the record, those judges for your entry are full of CRAP. Had to be said πŸ˜‰

  4. Beatriz says:

    Ha! Great post, Jerrica. I’m sure we all have tales from the contest trenches! I, personally, am the queen of the split score (2 highs and 1 low), probably because my work tends to lack that romance genre feel. But you know what? Once I’ve calmed down and read through the comments, I often find that even the judge who didn’t “get” me supplied one or even two worthy comments that ended up (gasp!) improving the manuscript. So I’ve learned to keep an open and humble mind.

    And you know what? That manuscript that got the split scores? Sometimes didn’t even final? It sold in hardcover to a major mainstream imprint, and, with a full year to go before release, has secured 4 foreign rights deals AND a movie agent. You can imagine how much fun I had sending follow-up emails to all those contest coordinators!

    Keep the faith, everyone!

  5. Jolie Brandt says:

    I’m not even sure where to begin in my comments, Jerrica. So, I’m just randomly starting and ignore me if I ramble.

    Like Beatriz, I also would split the score every time. I chalked it up to you can’t make everyone happy all of the time. And getting judges is the luck of the draw. Just like manuscripts, there are good judges and bad judges.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that it isn’t what you say, but how you say it. A judge can get their point across without being snarky or judgmental, etc. Some people do this better than others and that is a shame. When writers submit to a contest, they might not all have dreams of finaling, some may only want feedback and they paid $$ to submit their entry. No one I know would pay money to have someone tear them to shreds. So judges SHOULD be cognizant of that fact and realize that while not everyone is on the same level as far as the craft – we are all human beings and deserve the same courtesy we’d like for ourselves.

    After selling, I had no need to enter contests anymore, but I wanted to help out other writers who were entering contests because I’d been there myself and I know what it’s like to get a bad judge. I was determined to be a GOOD judge for all and sundry. I was always careful to phrase things in the nicest possible way to keep from hurting anyone else’s muse as mine had been squashed before. I always told the author what I liked, as you can never hear that enough.

    But now I’m tired. I’ve judged so many contests that I just can’t do it anymore. I’m burned out. I’ve come across entries that are truly cringe-worthy; but I would never say that to the author. I still point out things in the nicest possible way and encourage where I can. I just don’t think I can do it anymore. I have come to sympathize with agents and editors (gasp!) in this regard. I think I’d have to ask for a cyanide pill rather than face a slush pile. Of course with them, if the manuscript isn’t working, they get to quit reading. Contest judges don’t have that luxury, not if they’re ethical anyway. People DID pay money for feedback, after all. And judges DID agree to judge.

    Recently I was asked to look at (1) entry due to a tie. I was honestly floored that the entry tied for anything. I could not believe the first round judges passed it on, that other works were passed over. Now, I only got the one entry; but I’ve judged enough contests to know the quality of what is out there. And what this experience did for me was question contests all the more.

    So I go back to an original point. There are good contest entries and there are bad ones. There are good contest judges and there are bad ones. If you have a tight manuscript and you’re trying to get the interest of a final judge – go ahead and enter. But keep in mind not all the feedback you’ll receive is good feedback. (Disclaimer – the best feedback I ever got was from a judge who HATED my entry; but again the way the judge presented the notes were helpful. She didn’t say she hated it, the final score did that. And though I was annoyed at the time, I found wisdom in her words and became a better author because of it.)

  6. Mary Lamb says:

    This business is so rough. And it’s all very very subjective. I love some authors that others hate and vice cersa. I’ve come to the hard earned conclusion, as a writer, that you have to pay more attention to the people who are critics rather than the praisers. If you just rest on your laurels (“Those b——s don’t know what they are talking about and blah blah blah and they hurt my feelings, etc.,)you’ll just never be the best writer you can be. And honestly, who wants to be just a hack? Though my argument would hold more water if so many people I consider hacks weren’t so successful!

    Sigh. Treasure the compliments and pay attention to your worst critics. And yeah, it has to be said, not everyone criticises in the spirit of trying to help. As far as contest go…I don’t much bother with them I have had only one experience and the scores were all over the map. Ranging from “Yey -can’t wait to see the book published” to “multiple grammatical errors and impossible to judge because of poor writing.” And it was this exact same synopsis and first chapter which I submitted to a publisher, resulting in a request for a full and then offer to revise and re-submit.

    So screw ’em -unless the final round people are people you are actually considering to submit to. Then do your best and don’t worry about it.

    Though I have to say the money aspect of it all is a little trouble. Excellent points are being made here about the judges not behaving ethically.

    Good lcuk, everyone.

  7. Maria Ferrer says:

    I believe that new writers need to keep their writing to themselves in the beginning. You need time to find your own voice, to write the story YOU want to write before anyone else gets their claws into it. Contests and critique groups can be unintentionally viscious. I have a friend who stopped writing after 6 months with a critique group. Yes, she needed toughter skin but it is a lesson writers need to learn. Not everybody is going to like your writing. Not everyone is going to say so politely. Once You write Your story. Once You are confident then join a critique group, then enter a contest. But remember to wear your tough skin.

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone! I love how everyone is so opinionated on the topic. I should call my blog “Diatribes R Us.” LOL!

    As I walked around the mall, engaged in retail therapy, I thought about the power of words. As writers, we all must believe in their power, otherwise we wouldn’t be writers. So I think it baffles me when authors use their words so recklessly. Ah, well…you can’t control other people, only how you react to them. Now that I’ve gotten all this off my chest, I can move onward and upward πŸ™‚

    Thanks again to everyone for stopping by!

  9. I’ve only entered 3 contests in my life. The first, while I didn’t final, was encouraging in where I placed in the grand scheme of things. This gave me courage to enter two more contests with the same manuscript. I did not final in either one, and I only had one basement score, and that judge came off as harsh. I agree with Jolie in that it is possible to criticize someone without being hurtful. I tossed it aside because of tone. She may have been right on every count, but I felt more chastised for entering the unworthy manuscript than helped. After that, and after hearing the horror stories from my writer friends, I decided not to enter another contest. I trust my critique group and even when they have redlined a chapter to death, I know they are necesary changes and I know THEM. I don’t know who judged my previous manuscripts and so I can’t weigh how much value I can place on their suggestions and opinons. I think the only time I will attempt a contest again is if I want to get in front of a certain agent or publisher enough to risk potential harsh rejection because it is a luck of the draw who your judges will be. If I want feedback, I will rely on the 17 ladies in my critique group. They haven’t led me wrong yet.

  10. Kwana says:

    Great post. Thanks so much for reminding me that I too have said never again.

  11. Lise Horton says:

    Ah, Jerrica – I’ve been on both sides of the contest coin, and, in fact, a third one – because I’ve been a contest coordinator. I’ve been ripped by judges (and given reasonable, even-tempered criticism as well). And as a judge I have gone to great lengths, with even the most difficult of entries, to provide helpful feedback in a pleasant tone so as not to unduly upset entrants (though I think it can’t be avoided on some occasions because any criticism, for some people, is heinous).

    It was as a coordinator, however, that I discovered the vast difference between good judges and bad. Good judges may comment or ask a question on a point of history or vocabulary, but unless they are 100% sure they will not be snarky or deduct for it. Bad judges just wail away at the entry and I’ve seen judges make major faux pas, yet score down the entry (in one case I obtained a discrepancy judge for all of that judges’ entries). I’ve seen 3 of 4 judges score an entry at a very high level, and a 4th at the bottom. I’ve seen judges state outright that they don’t like a particular plot line or subject (and one judge said the author “stole” the idea for the story which, if you’re up on your copyright law, is not possible).

    It’s all a subjective exercise and requires thoughtful consideration as to whether or not you will be benefiting before you take the plunge to spend the money and put your story in the bull’s eye!

    The 2 reasons for contests – feedback and to get in front of an editor or agent – have their time and place. And there comes a time when contests are no longer necessary for an author. Unless they are for published authors like the RWA RITA award. Or a Pulitzer!

  12. Heather Boyd says:

    I think there’s another reason we enter contests that hasn’t quite been explored. Aside from getting our story before an agent or editor, each and everyone of us who write want our story to be loved. Sometimes the idea of entering a contest gives the illusion of having a receptive audience, but the reality is generally more heartbreak than heartwarming.

    Sometimes the feedback is badly phrased, or its a direct kick in the teeth, and all I see is good writers losing valuable hours/days worrying about the opinion of a couple of people who couldn’t bother to encourage. I’m sure there are good judges out there. *waving* I’ve had good luck in most of the contests I’ve entered. And I do thank them for that because its a tough job to take on.

    Perhaps a beta reader, someone outside the writers usual group, would provide that much needed confidence boost and more subtle suggestions for improvements where needed. It’s worth thinking about.

  13. Rosalie says:

    Hi, I once mass sent out a short story called Rimsky Korsakov’s Purple Cow. I could not believe the comments it elicted were about the same story. This is what happens when people don’t take everyone’s advice and become an accountant

  14. What an amazing post and the comments that followed. Especially meaningful was your observation that we often don’t like popular, prize winning books. When someone doesn’t like what I have done, I’ll just remember that.

  15. Shara says:

    Very nice post, Jerrica. I’ve never entered a writing contest – really because I haven’t fully developed my thick skin yet :). But your post just reminds me that with the little time I have, I should just focus on my writing.

  16. samanthagrace says:

    I’ve sworn off contests mainly because of the money. It didn’t make sense to me to invest in something that wasn’t paying off. I’d rather pay for a massage to relieve my aching back muscles so I can get back to writing.

    I do judge, though, and it is for the reasons above. I think good judges are needed. I go into the experience with the best intentions of being fair, helpful and respectful. As Jolie said, it is hard work and time consuming. Still, I have a choice in whether or not I volunteer, and if I do give my word, I feel honor-bound to do my best to be objective in a subjective business. I don’t have to love a story to recognize the craftmanship or to accept that it may be exactly what someone else would love.

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