Order in the Court

September 3, 2009

Song of the Day: Listen Like Thieves By INXS


Here on MuseTracks, we’ve discussed a lot about contests. We know it’s all about love and hate. Er . . . no, I mean, subjectivity. We learn from feedback, embrace what we agree with or ignore what doesn’t work, trawl for overall opinions, and toughen up our skins like leathery old sailors.


We’ve discussed the benefits of contests. We root out problem areas, recognize our strengths, polish the craft, and aim for a coveted spot in front of agents and editors should lady luck smile upon us with a final.  The latter often leads to scaring household pets as we jump from our chairs and perform ritualistic happy dancing.


Whether fumbling through the first mazes of the writing and publishing community or seasoned to taste with years of experience, all-in-all, contests are great tools in bettering ourselves as writers.


But it’s not just in entering contests that we can profit from. There is another way, an even greater gain that writers can greedily snatch up. Become a judge. Sounds like a message from a public broadcast, doesn’t it? “You too, can prevent forest fires.”


Becoming a judge for a contest yields many advantages. Not only are you giving back to a unique kinship of people –  people who instead of stuffing out competition like a spent stogie, strive to lift one another up, stoking fellow writers’ dreams into  fiery blazes – you are helping yourself.


How? You’d be amazed at what you can learn from reading contest entries. Mistakes made, from simple spelling errors to major swirling, black plot holes, are easier to spot on someone else’s work than in your own masterpiece. This, in turn, makes you more likely to avoid making the same faux pas.


So what, you may say. I can do this with my critique group. True, but with contests, you are encouraged to elaborate and be constructive in an unbiased enviroment when explaining why you give the scores you think an entry deserves. Golly Molly, just why did you score a 3 instead of a 4? By backing up your claims, you are forcing yourself into a deeper insight into your assertion. You give yourself an honest understanding of not only the craft but of your own writing style.


As a judge, you will read entries that are complete messes, bless their hearts, and entries that are polished to an ungodly gleam. There is something to be gained from them and all those entries that fall in between. One may be completely written in a passive yawn. Here is your chance to gently guide the author to the right path, pat them on the shoulder and wave them on their way. You wouldn’t leave a comrade hemorrhaging on the battlefield, would you? There is a communal instinct to help. After all, someone probably once helped you when you needed it, right? All for one and one for all! Yip! Yip!  Then there’s the manuscript that leaves you to wondering why you haven’t seen it in the bookstores. Surely they are already on the Best Seller List. Take note of what this author did right and see if you can apply it to your own writing.


Contest judging isn’t necessarily easy, though. If you decide to give judging a try, here are a few tips.


Judge in the same category you write. This will allow you to experience what others are writing in your chosen genre. A touchy-feely way to explore what works and what doesn’t.


Judge in a category you don’t write in but enjoy reading. Maybe you write contemporary single titles but love curling up with Regency historicals. By doing this, you may pick up on strengths and weaknesses easier, ones that you might be prone to miss in your genre. Therefore, you can translate what you learn into your writing.


Pass on categories or entries that you may find moral or ethic issues with. For instance, if you are an inspirational writer, you probably shouldn’t judge erotica or paranormal manuscripts that could rattle or offend you, or make you want to scrub your skin raw in the shower. Likewise, if romantic suspense gives you heebee geebies, provoking nightmares, steer clear.


Remain open-minded and respectful.  Just as you covet, nurture and protect the stories you weave like a mother bear, so do the entrants. They, too, have put in enormous amounts of effort, time and love into their cubs.


Be fair. Judge tales based on what the contest score sheet is asking, not on what you think it should be asking. I’ve read manuscripts with multiple, cringe-worthy errors but still gave them average or better scores based on the score sheet questions. That said, I point out these blemishes in hopes to help the author fruitfully. And remember, comments should always remain productive.


Don’t get hung up on crafting rules. Many score sheets will ask about mechanics. Score accordingly. However, don’t make the entry suffer overall because you have a pet peeve over improper comma usage. Sometimes, it’s more about the entertainment value.


Explain every score, including the high ones. Don’t just point out the flaws; give the entrant reason to rejoice their strengths.  


Always be kind. Telling someone they need to retake 2nd grade English is a no-no. Most of us who’ve entered contests have come across a nasty judge or two. Ugliness is not constructive and a superiority complex will not take you far.


Don’t be too critical or too nice. The point is not to give false hope or to squash dreams. It is to follow contest score sheet guidelines and justly fulfill the expectations of the entrant.


By nature, judging is subjective. Each judge has their likes and dislikes and own beliefs. And of course, this will invariably affect an entry’s score. The key is to remain honest and fair.


Bottom line, being a judge can train us to become better writers in both what we perceive and what we achieve.


Have you ever judged? Do you have judging tips? What is your opinion of judging? Let me hear from you.