Contest Judge Series: The Basics
1) Don’t be a bitch.
2) Don’t be useless.
Ok, seriously. You’ve signed up to judge in an unpublished author contest and you aren’t sure what that entails. Maybe you missed judge training or your RWA chapter doesn’t do judge training. (Hey…tell them to call me!) And maybe you’ve judged before but you’re reading this article for lack of anything better to do. A while back I ranted about RWA contests from the entrant’s position; now let’s talk about them from the judge’s side of the fence.
The way I see it, a judge’s two big challenges are what to say about a manuscript and how to say it in a way that’s both honest and tactful. First, a judge needs to understand that if she reads and writes romances, she’s qualified to judge romance novels. What does a writer want? To get published, repeatedly, which involves her readers enjoying each book enough to buy the next one. A romance-writing reader is uniquely qualified to aid the contestant. Not only are you the target audience for this novel, but being a fellow author gives you insight into the writing process.
Second, a judge needs to understand that just because she’s got the red pen, it doesn’t place her above the contestant in knowledge or skill. The judge may read a manuscript and think the author needs to go back to grammar school, but the judge who shares this opinion needs to go back to charm school. And writing school–because she was obviously not skilled enough a writer to convey her thoughts in a supportive manner. Unless the judge in question was imported to be a market expert, like a final round judge, she should consider herself the contestant’s equal—a co-conspirator, if you will. Save the condescension for the people who find out you’re a romance writer and make snotty comments about your genre.
Now that we’ve straightened that out, let’s return to the two big challenges: what to say and how to say it.
What to say will vary from manuscript to manuscript, and the things you’ll be asked to examine will vary from contest to contest. In MCRW’s Melody of Love, my local chapter, judges rate nine areas: first page; plot and pacing; conflict; characterization; writing style & technique; dialogue; reader experience (setting, etc.); professional presentation; and overall impression. Most chapters provide a self-explanatory score sheet, a judge’s worksheet, and/or other materials that can help a gal figure out what to say. In the event a judge still draws a blank, she can surf the Internet or skim some writing manuals to see what’s mentioned about the item she’s being asked to evaluate. Nearly all score sheets also have areas where the judge can explain a score, which is a grand and worthy thing to do. (And not filling it out puts you perilously close to being “useless”, so there you go.)
While all score sheets are different, most RWA contests are like the Melody of Love and have several sections–smaller scores that add up to the big kahuna. One thing that may help is to take each area or line as a separate entity. You may feel the hero and heroine have about as much depth as Pop Tarts, but the setting and opening page might be readable. Thus you’d give a lower score in characterization and a higher score in the other places…no matter how much you loathe the hero and heroine. Since you’re being asked to provide feedback about several topics, it’s a mistake to let a strong impression in one section influence your scores in the others. Moreover, this will give you the opportunity to share both praise and suggestions for revision.
One other thing to consider when judging an RWA contest is to remember you’re only seeing a limited sample of the book. Especially when evaluating sections like “conflict”, remember that not every aspect of a book’s plot is going to be revealed up front. Not every backstory factoid or GMC tidbit is going to come clear in the partial. Heck, tons of published romances don’t force the hero and heroine’s “cute meet” into the first five pages. So be careful not to penalize an author for using a mainstream narrative approach. It’s not a crime if all the information about the story isn’t shoehorned into the first twenty pages for the benefit of the curious contest judge.
That concludes the first challenge for RWA judges–what to say. Even trickier than what to say to a contestant about his or her manuscript is how to say it. How do you convey your nuggets of advice without being an ass? Or a liar? Or a fluffy puffer? How can you remain positive in the face of repeated spelling errors? The ladies in my local chapter in Tennessee might advise you to say what needs saying and follow up any tart comments with “Bless your heart”, but that’s probably not the best approach.
As above, a couple things to keep in mind. Your time is precious, right? Right. So don’t waste it. Don’t infuriate the contestant so much she tosses all your hard work and curses your judge number for all eternity. It’s not your job to “toughen her up” or “give it to her straight”. Let somebody else play that role, man. Your job is to provide helpful feedback, not kicks in the teeth. If the manuscript pained you, being constructive will make things difficult, but it’s the kind of difficult that’s good for you. It may even hone your writing skills. Imagine that!
By the same token, you do her no favors if you blow sunshine up her woohoo because you can’t bear to say anything negative. Yes, we all need praise and encouragement, but we don’t need to be told everything’s butterflies when it’s caterpillars. And you probably do yourself no karmic favors if you assume she’s going to appreciate any sarcasm or jokes the manuscript tempts you to make. This is about helping her polish before she sends her manuscript to editors and agents, not showcasing your own cleverness.
Now I’ll share some of the specific tips on phrasing commentary I suggest in my judging workshop.
1. Use phrases like: “Some readers might have problems with…”; “I had concerns about X because…”; “The first scene might have more impact if…”; “Maybe you could try X or X”; “You might heighten the reader’s bond with the protagonist if…”; “Readers might want to know about X at this point in the plot”; “I wonder what would happen if you tried X?”; “This confuses me here because…”; “This reads awkwardly for me” and so on.
2. That disclaimer where you say, “Take what you want, discard the rest” doesn’t help when you’ve been a real poo head.
3. Try to avoid absolutes. It will soften a criticism when you make it a question or use “maybe” words. That gives the writer a choice and doesn’t put the judge in a position of assumed superiority. Don’t lecture!
This advice may seem namby-pamby to some of you, too tentative to be taken seriously. You may feel like you don’t need anybody cushioning your blows, so why should you fluff up the pillows for somebody else? Besides, coming across as unsure, passive or wishy-washy negates your authority. Right?
Wrong. As a first round judge in an RWA contest, you’re not in a position of authority. You’re in a position of equality. And while you might think you can hear anything a stranger has to say about your manuscript without cringing, you can’t assume everyone has the same approach to criticism that you do. They’re better off, and you’re better off, if you flex your tact muscle in this situation.
If you have one, that is. If you don’t, bless your heart. Consider this as a much-needed opportunity to develop it.
In my next article, entitled “The Difficult Manuscript”, I’ll discuss exercises in civility that will result in Tact Muscles of Steel in thirty days, or your money back!