Writing Contests — They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

           Why Pay an Anonymous Judge to Smack Me Down?
                                               
By Jeff Salter 

            I could write a book about contests.  So today’s little excerpt will be just a few of my rants and raves. 
            But first a disclaimer:  For those talented and fortunate few writers with positively golden entries which win or ‘final’ in a contest — they are fantastic opportunities for exposure to agents, editors, or publishers … and many of those contest results lead to SALES!  So, if I were one of those few winners/finalists, I’m sure I would heap nothing but praise on contests … and most of their judges.
            AND:  Years ago I regularly entered poetry contests – local, regional, and even national – and, yes, I won numerous awards … at each of those levels.  So I still have a warm feeling about them.  But in novel manuscripts?  Uh … not so much.
            However, in total honesty, if I were to enter and win a novel contest, I would immediately flip-flop and start telling people how great contests are.  LOL … and honesty hurts. 

How I got to the contest table
            Shortly after switching from poetry to fiction five years ago, my brother (and critique partner) suggested I “enter some contests” … for feedback from colleagues and possible exposure to publishing folks (were I to ‘place’ or win).  At that time, having no other plan, I jumped into it.  Over the next four years, I entered a BIG national contest three times, a state’s regional contest three times, two competitions of the chapter I’d joined, and two other entries elsewhere.  It was three different manuscripts for a total of 10 entries … and I’m 0-for-10.
            In my first contest year, I had an entry which scored 100% from one judge — 230 points out of 230.  Wow!  Perfection!  But of course, the other two judges were split:  one liked it ‘okay’ and the other didn’t.  But that single PERFECT score fueled my competitive drive to keep revising and keep entering.
            You can probably imagine:  I never got a perfect score again.  In fact, the highest I ever got after that was somewhere around 94% as I recall (and the others even lower).  And to final in some of those competitions, you needed 100-99-100 or better!
            All that money in fees and postage.  All that time … all that waiting.  All that hope … dashed to pieces.  I know … too melodramatic. 

And why I LEFT the contest arena
            About some of those contests, I have an image of paying good money and expending a lot of effort … just to let somebody tie me under a goal post and use me as a tackling dummy.
            Of course, some of my judges – even if they scored me lower than I wanted – did seem to give it a sincere and open-minded effort … and some even offered encouraging words (along with those A- or B+ scores).  But a few seemed to salivate as they ripped me to shreds.
            Some of the contests had categories of critical analysis which were, IMHO, badly flawed in their weighting.  To me, many seemed to be exercises in technical achievement which tacitly discouraged ‘creative’ writing. 
Did the writer capture your imagination and make you want to dive in?  5 points
Did the ms. look clean, with neat margins, and no adverbs or –ing words?  25 points. 
Did the writer dare to switch POV without adequately notifying Congress?  MINUS 15 points!
            Hmm.   

A few particulars and then I’ll shut up
*          In the summer/fall of 2010, I entered two contests which required no synopsis.  I thought, ‘Cool … I don’t have to struggle with a synopsis!’  [These were newly-completed manuscripts for which I had no synopsis yet].  But that decision really bit me on the butt.  Some of the judges made huge assumptions – dead WRONG, by the way – about where my plot was going or what would happen to the characters.  And they graded me DOWN, based on their incorrect assumptions!  My reaction:  if you don’t require a synopsis, don’t let the judges supply their own predictions and grade me on their misconceptions.
*          In one contest, my lowest scoring judge listed her name and website, so naturally I took a look.  Hmm.  She even had her own (un-sold) manuscript available to read, right there.  So I read the first three chapters.  Absolute crap!  I do not exaggerate to say it would be considered awful fiction writing even for a junior high schooler.  Technically okay — but cardboard characters, stilted dialog, and a stupid premise which the writer didn’t come close to ‘selling’.  And she thought MINE was crap!  Ha.
*          One judge gave me a 2 (out of 5 points) on nearly EVERY category.  Really?  My entry was so completely uniformly horrid that NONE of it ranked even a middle score?  I think she/he would have scored me with all ones except judging criteria specifically stipulated that a ‘1’ score required an explanation.  My conclusion:  that particular judge wants to sadistically squash any other writers …. or she/he is just too lazy and doesn’t give a damn.
*          One judge chastised me – and lowered my score – for certain words of dialog.  One of my characters (in middle Tennessee) used the word ‘momma’ a few times.  This judge couldn’t tolerate that.  My reaction:  some people DO use that word.  And besides, did that single word REALLY kill that entire grading category?
*          One judge flogged me – and ruined my score – because my female protagonist referred to her 13-year-old niece as a ‘bitch’.  [No, not to her face and not to the child’s parent.  It was an unspoken, internal THOUGHT my character had about that particular, badly-spoiled youngster.]  The judge lashed out:  “Nobody would refer to her niece in those terms.”  My reaction:  “Has she/he ever interacted with real human families before?  Sometimes the spoiled niece IS a bitch!”
            I could go on (and on) but I’ll end with this one because I was indignant (of course) … but it also caught my funny bone.
*          In one contest, a judge graded me low on dialog and offered this ‘helpful’ comment:  “Dialog between the hero and his buddy is not believable … men don’t talk like that.”  Hmm.  At that point I’d been a guy for about 58 years, I’d been talking for maybe 56 years, and about half or more of those conversations have been with other guys.  So … My reaction:  “I believe I know what guys sound like when WE talk.  And it’s NOT what you hear on soap operas, by the way.”
            Now, let me add that I did NOT send the REACTIONS I’ve indicated here to any of those judges who angered me — though I was tempted.  But I wisely realized I was too steamed to interact with them at all.  However, I have – for some of the judges who gave either good scores or good feedback (or both) – sent a ‘thank you’ through the coordinator. 

Except for a final disclaimer
            I truly believe that perhaps 80% of these volunteer judges put a great deal of effort into a difficult and thankless job.  I think they agonize over each entry and try to be as fair as they can and as supportive as possible … within the confines of the grading structure.  [After all, they can’t make up their own criteria … they have to fill out the score sheet provided by the contest.]  To these folks, I say:  thanks, even if you didn’t think my stuff was great.  You are NOT included in those examples I’ve listed above.  

… And a question for you
            What has been your WORST – or best – experience with contest results?

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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46 Responses to Writing Contests — They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

  1. Bethany says:

    I haven’t entered contests as of yet. But I have been a contest coordinator, and I was blessed to work with judges who really wanted to be helpful.

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Maybe you’ll be one of those few who gets very positive reception, high numbers, and warm, helpful feedback.
      But brace yourself, Bethany, because — out there — lurks a FEW mean-spirited judges who don’t know what they’re talking about and love to beat you over the head with it.

      Like

  2. Tonya Kappes says:

    Well…here’s my skinny and two cents since you asked, but remember two cents don’t get much now-adays!
    Don’t waste your money! What does contests get you that your critique partner can’t? NOTHING! It’s a waste of money, waste of energy that you could be putting into another story. I agree that you ned your peers to read your work, but frankly these “contest” are just a way to make money for the RWA chapter (and I’m assuming these are the contest which you enter). I have been a judge for SEVERAL contests because no one wants to judge them and I feel bad. With that said, I’ve also been on the board of three RWA chapters that host contests where the money is the main focus and agents/editors had to be BEGGED to do the final reads. Not only that, but the GOLDEN prize I’m sure you are referring to the Golden Heart….umm…go back and look to see how many of those have ever been picked up by an agent. I’m sure you’ll be surprised!

    Do I sound bitter? No, I don’t care who enters and who doesn’t, but I work way to hard for my money when I have a critique group that “judges” me every week. Just sayin’ because you asked:))

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    • jeff7salter says:

      I think you’re right on the money, Tonya. And it doesn’t sound bitter at all to me. It simply sounds realistic.
      Of course, like I said, if I was winning those ‘final’ spots or higher, I’d be singing a diff. tune. Ha. Having been on both sides of this — winning cash prizes with my poetry but tanking with my fiction — I know (what the TV sports show used to call) the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”. Ha.
      Thanks for visiting today.
      And, yeah. the G.H. was the BIG contest I wasted 4-5 months on … for each of THREE diff. years.

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  3. Lois Grant says:

    I have not entered any contests other than Library ones of naming something, won some – didn’t many, and am not writing anything other than some ideas for children’s picture books, but I can imagine the feelings that judges could provoke. When you create something, whether it is written on paper, painted on canvas or by some type of machine, that creation is your baby. When someone judges it less than perfect, it really is a blow to your inner self. It is like someone saying that you birth ugly kids! I want you to keep writing Jeff and keep sending those manuscripts off as I truly believe that one day someone will really like what you created. It is very easy to see that you have a talent for writing and working with words and such a great sense of humor in reading your comments, notes and poems that you post on Facebook. You are also very sensitive to others’ feelings. I would imagine that you create very three dimensional characters when you write. Keep it up and one I predict that you will get published eventually.

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Sug, for your insight and your very kind words about me and my writing. Nice to hear a good assessment now and then. I wish I could’ve had YOU for a contest judge. You would prob. have given a fair reading — pointed out the good things I’d accomplished, and given appropriate scores to the areas my entry showed weaknesses.

      For any literary judge to use a contest as a platform to abuse and discourage others … is really sicko.
      Thanks for visiting today!

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  4. crbwrites says:

    Contests have taught me a lot. First round judges are readers, and their immediate responses are revealing. My scores are usually a huge mix–a near-perfect score attached to a bomb. I’m clinging to the hope that these love/hate scores are an indication that I have a strong voice. (I read that somewhere.) The main thing I’ve learned from entering and judging contests is–oh!–I don’t write romance. And that’s been a big help with discovering my target market.

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Very glad you brought that up, Chris. I had intended to mention this in my column, but (as you can see) it ran long.
      Yes, contests also reinforced (in me) my nagging belief that I was not writing ‘romance’ … at least not in the formula sense. My first entries were ‘fiction with romantic elements’ and that was the category I entered. But I soon realized much of the criteria and some of the judges were still GRADING on the basis of formula romance. Hmm. Why have that other category but ignore it?
      The other thing I learned, when I entered two screwball romantic comedies in other contests, was that some of the contest criteria — and, apparently, some of the judges — do NOT “get” humor. There’s certainly no place for it in the categories. But they’ll grade down on categories in which it’s obvious (to any perceptive reader) that comedic models will affect things.
      My conclusion was that screwball romantic comedy has no contest which allows it. And to an extent, most contests punish ordinary — non-screwball — romantic comedy as well.
      And those realizations led to my decision to stop wasting time & money & angst on contests.
      Thanks for visiting, Chris.

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  5. Micki Gibson says:

    Oh, the comments you can get! My particular “favorite” was where the one judge wrote about my female protagonist, “You know Racquel is usually spelled without the ‘c’, don’t you?” The judge could have made the point without the added “Don’t you?” but it came across as snooty to me which made me yell back at my manuscript (the poor, innocent being in all this), “You do know she’s MY character, DON’T YOU?” And excuse me, but I had a reason for spelling it that way since my daughter is Jacqueline…with the c. A small, tiny way of throwing a nod to my kid in my manuscript without making it such a blatant copy of her. I just wanted to say, “You spell your characters’ names your way, I’ll spell mine my way.” So nyah!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      I can’t believe that a contest judge would get snarky about the way an author chooses to spell a name. Good grief!
      I had one judge chastise me because there was (supposedly) no HEADER on my ms. pages. Well, guess what? There was a header when it left here, there was a header when the contest coordinator got it, and (acc. to the coord.) there was a header when she sent it to the judge. When I complained about that, the coord. said she could get me back those points from that ‘format’ category since, clearly, I had submitted a header. But I declined. Three add’l points wouldn’t have made any diff., because that judge hated everything else about my entry as well.
      But it also serves as an illustration that some — hopefully a small percentage — judges are LOOKING for ways to gig the entries (and, by extension, inflict pain on the writer).
      Thanks for commenting, Micki.

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  6. I submitted one now published novel in two contests. I didn’t final in either but I got really good scores in one (the chick-lit “stiletto” contest) and pretty horrid scores in the other. I think my mistake was entering my chick-lit book in a romance contest because most of the negative comments were that it was not romantic enough. One particularly obnoxious judge suggested I read a few romance novels to see how it’s done because I clearly have no idea how to write a romance novel. Since I wasn’t trying to write a romance novel, the judges low score and harsh words (I can’t recall the other negative comments) stung but didn’t really stick. And I learned my lesson – don’t enter chick-lit in a romance contest because romance readers/writers will likely not appreciate my voice. The best constructive criticism I have received was in a writer’s workshop because each of the students wrote in a different genre but was able to analyze my novel for what it was supposed to be “chick-lit” and not what they would read/write personally, i.e. “literary fiction, romance, YA, etc”

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Glad you could visit, Meredith. And congrats on your book soaring above and beyond the contest circuit into Publishing Land. It was “Friends with Benefits” wasn’t it? Or something very similar.
      Yes, I was slow to realize that unless the entry is RIGHT ON the cookie-cutter confines of the contest criteria … it doesn’t stand a chance. In the G.H., for example, that category of ‘novel with romantic elements’ (or something similar) is a catch-all for all the ms. that didn’t fit the other dozen rather specific categories. So the unfortunate judges in that catch-all category had the add’l burden of evaluating a literary ‘garage sale’.

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  7. sandra tilley says:

    Jeff, reading your post made me chuckle–as usual. I felt your pain! But I think contests are great for beginning writers. In my case, it showed me how much I didn’t know. Instead of putting my head in the oven, it encouraged me to learn the craft. However, like you, I don’t understand how one judge can give a perfect score and another judge give one below the basement level. Entering contests helps when you don’t have a critique partner. Also, if you final in one, it gives something to put in the personal paragraph of your queries!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Sandra, for commenting and for your compliment.
      Funny, I never thought of putting my head in the oven, but I certainly had an abundance of frustration and confusion. But I think, overall, I’m over it now. And, as you’ve said, the ‘scores all over the place’ encouraged me to learn more about what I was writing and where it fit… or didn’t fit.
      I need to locate a perceptive, speedy, beta reader. I’m prob. too selfish with my time for a regular crit partner, because that would mean I’d be reading and reacting to another writer’s ms.
      But, yeah, I SOOO wanted to ‘final’ in something … so I could put that in my tagline. LOL

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  8. Laurie Ryan says:

    Ah, Jeff, I’m sorry you’ve had such horrid experiences. I am a real believer in being constructive in contest judging. And I’ve been lucky. The only time I really had issues with fwomen’s eedback I got was when I entered my women’s fiction novel in a “some romatic elements” category and was told it didn’t appear to be a romance. It wasn’t. Even then, though, they judges helped me find a couple flaws I was then able to write out of my beginning.
    I like to read most anything. And I also enjoy it when folks do the unthinkable -when they write outside the box. So I’m guessing (and hoping) that makes me a tolerant and decent judge. lol

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    • jeff7salter says:

      I’ll bet you’re a wonderful contest judge, Laurie.
      Isn’t that funny (not humorous, but sad-funny) that the category which clearly SAYS it’s not formula romance … is often graded that way anyhow. That is so fixable, it seems to me.
      When I’m at my lowest about things (like lousy feedback from contests), I think of extreme examples of creative people who were not valued in their lifetimes (or some of their works were unappreciated). The monks who’d commissioned DaVinci’s “Last supper” later defaced the bottom middle of that painting because they decided to carve a doorway from that room to an adjoining room. Can you imagine the feelings DaVinci would have had, if that had taken place during his lifetime?
      Thanks for visiting today!

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  9. Louisa Bacio says:

    Jeff,

    I’ve definitely been on both sides. Since college, when I was entering journalism writing contests, I had the polar opposite judges on just about every entry. What I dislike is the judge that purposely scores low, it seems, to keep an entry from making the finals. Can I really score a 98 and a 10? Almost perfect on everything, and then a 1 on everything?

    My first novel, “Sex University: Physical Education,” scored low in an erotic contest, and the comments were something along the lines about it being “too erotic” and that it would *never* sell. (Umm, I’m not putting my book title there to promo but to highlight the fact that it did sell … and I got a contract for a sequel 😉

    I also had one judge tell me that I didn’t know how to use commas. I’m sorry, but I have two master’s degrees — in journalism and English. I’ve worked as a copy editor for newspapers. I still edit for colleges and magazines. Sheesh — I even won first place in a timed editing contest! I *know* how to use commas. In that case, I wanted to ask, “do you?”

    On the other side, I judge contests. After doing maybe four this year, I’ve taken a step back time-wise. But, I judge because I want to “give back” and help other writers. I truly want to give constructive feedback. On the other side, I don’t want to lay out perfect scores all around because sometimes I feel like those judges don’t really “read” either, you know? But, recently when I heard that one contest I judged had X amount of perfect scores (don’t remember how many), it made me think. So if I really like something I have to judge it “perfect” in order for it to final?

    OK, I got some “bad” writing to do today — and grading — enough.

    Thanks for the distraction!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Pleased to see you here today, Louisa.
      I’ve also got some journalism in my background … but it was WAAAYY back. LOL.
      I’m bad about commas, so if a judge gigs me there, I deserve it. But the real issue is: should a judge be overly concerned about punctuation? I mean, an editor or publishing team will correct grammatical things. Let the contest judge the CONTENT, not the margins or headers, or comma faults! Sheesh.
      Yeah, for sev. of the contest I entered, you needed two 100s out of 3 scores to final. I don’t know what they do with those finalists to decide who wins. Must be purely subjective beyond that point.
      When you’ve judged contests, Louisa, I’ll bet you’re fair and constructive. I’m sure you’ve had to read some stinkers, and you should grade them accordingly, but I’m also sure you didn’t gleefully pound nails into their eyeballs just for sport.

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  10. jbrayweber says:

    Too bad, Jeff. I really do feel your pain. (Shaking head in the been-there-done-that sort of way) I have some real bombs, myself. I’m one of those that gets the perfect scores and the fail scores. My lowest score I ever received was a 28 out of 100, and this on a manuscript that not only finaled and won in several contests, but is now being published. I have been chastised, drug through the mud, whipped and pickled time and again. I’ve had attacks that seemed far too personal and completely unnecessary.

    So why did I keep entering contests? Well, for the initial reactions and feedback from writing peers I have never met. I have had some wonderful constructive criticism that I wouldn’t have gotten from any one of my 3+ critique partners. Plus, I won’t lie, I wanted to final to get in front of those agents and editors.

    I also believe that every writer should take some time to actually BE a judge. I judge often, and I can tell you, I learn more by judging than I do by the feedback in entering. It’s amazing how much you absorb when you analyze others according to score sheets.

    Now scoresheets are another animal all together. Some need serious revamping. Less questions on formatting and more emphasis on the STORY! I’d even go so far as to say cut back on questions regarding craft as well.

    Anyway, more than my 2 cents. Great post, Jeff.

    Jenn!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Jenn. You’re another of the kind of contest judge we need more of! It’s heartening to learn — here, today — that there are numerous judges out there with whom I’d trust my contest fate and know I’d get fair scoring and feedback.
      I can take my lumps, if my ms. deserves them. But those (hopefuly few) judges who use their temporary positions to grind an axe (against my skull) … well, that’s misplaced anger or something else ‘psycho’. Maybe they had a rough time toilet-training or something. Ha.
      The judge who scored your 28 … sounds like one I’ve had who decided everything was a TWO … scoring the lowest possible number without having to justify it. But why? Jealousy? Resentment? Ignorance? Bad hair day? I don’t get it.
      I’ve read comments (elsewhere) from judges who, when they have a (negative) emotional response to something in an entry … will put it down and wait til the next day to have another look. They say they don’t dare assign a score on those parts when they’re reacting to something other than what the criteria stipulates. An example would be if a judge is mortified or disgusted by something about the subject matter. Well, that’s not a category — probably — but it can/will affect (and INfect) their scores on everything else. A wise judge will set it down and return to it when she/he can separate their reaction from the categories of competition.
      I think you are that kind of judge, Jenn.

      Like

  11. Um, wow. I’ve never entered a contest, but I have judged a couple. I suppose I now know why a handful of authors whose entries I judged responded with gracious thanks (which were forwarded to me from the coordinator). I spent hours on each one. It stinks knowing those hours *may* have been countered by a random 2s-across-the-board kind assessment.

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Hi, Sarah. You, also, sound like the RIGHT kind of judge — fair and trying to help the writers with their manuscripts.
      And, yeah, those monsterously low scores DO impair the entrants’ spirits … but in most contests the lowest score is dropped. Some have a weird arithmetic they use in certain extreme cases … something about differential averaging (don’t remember what they call it). But in most, they just drop the lowest and either total the two highest or average them. I’ve seen more of them averaged than I have of the others.
      Thanks for visiting today. How is ‘Hawthorne’ selling? The one which benefits victims of natural disasters.

      Like

      • Good to know they weed out the overly enthusiastic low- and high-ballers! LOL. And thanks for asking about HAWTHORNE. I don’t have sales figures yet, but the reviews have been outstanding! I have eight ratings and six reviews on GoodReads and I have stared at them and CRIED. I feel I am getting so much more than I am giving on this one. *sniff, sniff* ;c) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12035577-hawthorne

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      • jeff7salter says:

        That’s super, Sarah. And do I understand correctly that you’re also doing a novel-length version of the Hawthorne novella ?

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      • I have to reply up here, Jeff. No more reply buttons under your last post, LOL. Thank you very much! And yes, there will be a full length novel that picks up where Hawthorne leaves off. I had another plot brewing around a house and the secrets it kept, and after the first three or four people who read Hawthorne demanded a sequel I realized that other plot bunny would be perfect to continue this story. I’m pretty excited about it, but also feeling the pressure to live up to the original. Eeeep!

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      • jeff7salter says:

        I love spooky old houses and mysterious secrets.

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  12. I absolutely loved and enjoyed this post – esp the guys don’t talk like that part.

    AND the synopsis thing- you’re right there. I had one judge mark me down when a synopsis was not required because she couldn’t figure out (in 20 pages) why certain things hadn’t happened and if they would. HELLO? If I told you the whole story in 20 pages, that would be a short story, not a novel. Unreal- either require a synopsis or don’t mark down if something is foreshadowed that isn’t resolved in 20 pages. Just sayin’

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Absolutely right, Jillian. Some judges apparently want the entire novel’s story arc & all the developmental journey of main characters — AND their relationship — in those first 20 pps.
      And furthermore, some seem to demand the hero appears by page TWO … or else. I’mt hinking: is the story really a dry turd just because the hero is a page or two ‘late’ showing up?

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      • I hate those arbitrary rules about when the hero has to show up!! And I try to buck them if at all possible- what can I say, I’m a rebel.

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      • jeff7salter says:

        Well, you may be able to buck them since you already have two (?) books out and another two (?) sold. But little ole me has to follow their stinkin’ rules … until I sneak into the back door. LOL

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  13. Leigh says:

    Good morning, Jeff! Sorry to be late but I had to respond to this. I completely get what you’re saying here. I had similar experiences myself when I did enter contests and felt the same about the quality of judges. No matter what is said about this business being subjective, I believe that judges and the judging process must be objective. Just because one doesn’t like the way one thinks a story is going doesn’t mean one has carte blanche to rip it to shreds.

    If contests are supposed to be a learning experience, judges have to be of a better caliber and have higher motives. Genre fiction is often formulaic to the extreme. Yet, the best of genre fiction strays well away from the ‘musts’. Earlier this year, one writing contest in which I was involved, changed the focus of the entries to THE STORY. Judges were encouraged to concentrate on the success of the writer to engage the reader’s imagination.

    I also think that the scoring is often dishonest. I have heard some judges confess to being too generous because they didn’t want to hurt a writer’s feelings and are shocked when that entry finalled because none of the judges could be honest with that writer. On the other end, I know some judges are so fixated on their knowledge of facts and grammar (without really having an encyclopedic grasp of information) that they give low scores based on personal bias.

    I applaud those judges who put aside their personal preferences and narrow-minded attitudes to focus on their real job – to foster and encourage, with honest, thoughtful critiques. And one final matter, I am an aunt and I have referred to my niece as a ‘bitch’ but I won’t say which one – the list would be endless!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Gosh, Leigh, you covered everything! Cool.
      Very glad to hear that contest you mentioned is shifting focus to the STORY and how well it engages the reader. That’s so much more important than whether the writer breaks a few arbitrary ‘rules’ (real or imagined).
      I’ve also ‘heard’ [i.e.read] things by contest judges which made me cringe. Nothing quite like your example, but I know sev. who basically start with a particular number all the way down and then nudge it up or down, depending on their view of the ms in that specific category. So they are, in effect, prejudging that this entry will be a THREE, (for ex.) or a SEVEN. Whatever. That can’t be a good way to approach a ms.
      I also appalud those honest and dilligent judges — and sev. of the commenters here are evidently of that high caliber — who truly invest the time and effort to judge as objectively as they can … and help the writer understand the ms.’s weaknesses and strengths.
      Thanks for your input today.

      Like

  14. Melissa says:

    Great post! And I have to agree with you. I’ve entered my share of contest, even had good feedback and learned a few things. But for the most part, I don’t think they are worth all the time, energy and stress it takes to get the submission ready. And some of the bad feedback can really be damaging to some. I have judged and it was brutal. The idea that something I said or a score I gave could affect someone’s chances of moving forward. I shudder to think even now. I feel like there should be tons more training for those wanting to judge. Until then, I’ll stick with my critique partners thank you very much. 😉

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks for visiting, Melissa.
      Yeah, I’ve read things from contest coordinators which addresses the training issue. Many of them DO make an effort to orient and train the volunteer judges … but it seems a few of them go ‘rogue’ and just “judge” the way they want to. Not much you can do with volunteers who won’t cooperate. [That’s true in nearly any endeavor.]
      It sounds like you’ve been very conscientious in your judging and I’d be very happy to have you as a judge in any contest I ever should enter again.

      Like

  15. I know I am a day behind here, but between losing my voice and the facebook reshuffle(re-friend me!), I had to put my two cents in tonight.
    I wrote my first bit since I was a kid in 1981-2 when my sister, who had always wanted to be a writer, was entering (for the 4 th time) The American Song Festival. The ASF had previously enjoyed a grand reputation with big names judging and winning, but had been on its way down by this time. I dashed off 4 songs, two pretty good, one pathetic and one that was a cheap way out. We spent money we didn’t have on copyrighting them and the entrance fees. Surprise! I actually took an “Honorable Mention” in the lyrics catagory, (me and a bunch of English and Dutch fellows, it seemed). That has gotten me nowhere. Some time after, my sister entered my ‘winning’ lyric in a ‘poetry competition’ which was really a vanity press scam,(everyone ‘wins’, gets printed and they graciously sell you the book at a ‘discount’ price). I kept calling them to tell them that they did not have my permission and they kept assuring me that it would be taken care of, but I also kept receiving ‘final’ notices that I needed to pre-order however many copies of ‘my book’ that I wanted.I threaten them with copyright infringement…that did it. A young friend of mine fell for that scam; they milked her even for a trip to Florida with the other ‘poets’ for a ‘convention’. It broke her bank account, her heart and her spirit to write.
    People have been trying to get me to enter competitions.I don’t think its worth the money…money I don’t have to fool around with. The postage for sumissions is bad enough, thank you very much!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Welcome, Tonette (with the new ‘handle’).
      I know exactly which poetry ‘contest’ you’re talking about. They conned me into buying two of their ‘anthologies’ at $20 a pop. Looking back on it, I can’t believe i fell for it. But at least I didn’t get the $50 vol. which had a leather cover, and certainly didn’t waste $$ on any further contact with them. Mine was that same time period, also 1980-81. By ’83 that outfit was being investigated and were shut down, I think. The old lady ‘poet’ who was the titular head of things had beem replaced by her son and he made no pretense of having poetry at the center. It was all about selling crappy books. The only thing creative about it was the variations of titles they came up with. LOL. I forget them now.

      Like

  16. Hate to tell you this, but the poetry ‘contests’ are still alive and kicking (other people). My young friend, (who would not listen to me), fell for it just a couple of years ago

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Well, after their legal troubles, I guess they tweaked things enough to stay legal and then pressed ahead. As I recall the books there were something like 4 or 5 columns of poems on each page. Tiny print. It was awful. And the stuff around your poem was pure garbage. LOL

      Like

  17. On the other hand,(and only I could forget to mention this), a friend put me onto the first St.Jude’s Shrine (Chicago) Christmas card writing contest two years ago,(no fee, no prize ..except bragging rights).I dashed a few off, which they did not pick for their card, but put a couple into a “Book of Inspirations”.They had wanted to print it and sell it, but thought the economy wouldn’t carry it,so they made it into an online book. They made one again last year, put in all the poetry, (and a photo) ,I sent to them. It is unusual stuff for me, very traditional, rhyming poetry, but they liked it…and I can say that my poetry has been published. I downloaded the books onto CD’s. If they have a contest this year,I may go for it…

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      That book of inspirations sounds like a good idea.
      Some of my poems are structured and rhymed. But probably half or more are free verse.
      I’ve written over 900 I think. In the 2007 move, I misplaced some of my manuscript boxes so I don’t have an exact count.

      Like

  18. That is so sad,Jeff;I am sorry.I am not an artist by a long shot, but I did some pictures to illustrate a couple of stories and a group of palindromes for the Scouts and they were inadvertently thrown out …I think my Am. Song Festival award went out in that batch, too…can’t find it.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      And some things cannot be replaced. They are just ‘gone’.
      I know we can’t keep everything, but items representing creativity should be given special status. And then we hope those who come after us will value them.

      Like

  19. Janette Harjo says:

    Hey Jeff!
    I can hear you about contests and the judges thereof! I guess they believe they can say such as they do because it is all “subjective” The latest contest I entered came back with my being told that I did not use”good” English. That was a “Huh?” moment for me as I just graduated University in ’09 and was told there that English was my “forte.” The contest in question was also a contest w/o a synopsis and I was judged down there for the same reason as you; the ms did not proceed from the first chapter as the judge envisioned it should.
    And about being told that people don’t talk that way, or for that matter, things don’t or could never happen that way. In your case, I’ve always called my momma, “momma” (I guess your judge has never been down south or spoken to someone from there)! In my case, I’ve written about stuff that has literally happened to me, but have been told that would never happen!

    Go Figure . . .
    JH!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Delighted you found your way over here, Janette.
      The examples you provided made me laugh, but they’re also too typical of narrow-minded judges who only see the literary world through their own peep-holes.
      You know, I’ve ‘spoken’ with somebody else who had written a scene which was taken practically verbatim out of her real life … and a judge slammed it as implausible.
      Obviously I haven’t judged any contests for novel-length fiction, but if I ever do, I hope I will look past the headers and the comma faults and a few colloquilisms … and try to assess whether the STORY is compelling and the characters multi-dimensional … and the plot layered. I will try to listen for the writer’s voice and not be so completely de-railed by her/his cosmetics.
      Hope you’ll come back every Thursday for words of wisdom from the Hound. And if you stop in during the rest of the week, you’ll find gems from the Resident Foxes.

      Like

  20. Pingback: Contests and Conferences, Oh My | fourfoxesonehound

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