I recently served as a judge for the RWA Faith, Hope, and Love Inspirational Readers' contest. What fun! I received a thick package of four new books, which I was allowed to keep in exchange for reading them and telling the contest coordinators what I thought. I read each, spacing them out with other non-contest books so that my feedback would be somewhat independent. I gave my honest opinion and returned my feedback in much less than the two months time allotted.
It was such a delightful experience, I quickly signed up to be a judge again. This time I'm serving as a judge for the RWA Lone Star Writing Competition. Maybe I should have researched the contest before signing up. Although I'm still enjoying myself, this experience is markedly different.
For the Lone Star competition, I received a less thick package than the last time. Hmmm, I wondered. Must be pretty thin books. I opened it up and out fell the 1st 25 pages of five manuscripts. Uh-oh! These are someone's WIP, not published, polished works that I can read and like or not like because some editor has already blessed them and sent them forth into the world. Those writers will sell and earn royalties whether I like their stories or not. Not so for these poor souls. They are earnestly looking for feedback to help them down the path to the Holy Grail of publication. And I only have one month to do it. Oh boy! My shoulders sagged as the weight of these writers' expectations fell upon them.
I immediately sympathized with and applauded the writers--they submitted so they're a step ahead of me on the journey--and set out to do the absolute best job I could, to give each manuscript (1) my undivided attention while reading; (2) my honest and educated opinion, leaving my personal prejudices aside; and (3) a balance of good and constructive criticism, worded in such a way that the writer would hopefully understand the points I made and be able to do something with it, should she choose to.
As always, while committing myself to the task at hand, I'm learning too. So what have I learned about submitting contest entries?
1 -- Check spelling, grammar and punctuation
There's nothing more annoying than obvious errors. Be careful not to put off the judge before he or she gets to the heart of the submission.
2 -- Jump right in
Since I only have 25 pages to read, it's important that I get a feel for the hero, the heroine, and the plot right away. No time for meandering with colorful narrative or unimportant secondary characters. At the same time, the scenes should flow from one to the next. Too many disjointed scenes, in the name of increasing the action, is counterproductive.
3 -- Make the dialogue sharp
If the dialogue isn't moving the plot forward quickly, get rid of it.
4 -- Watch that POV!
Don't head hop and no matter what, don't start talking directly to the reader. Too jarring, like the person sitting next to you a movie theater starting up a conversation when you're trying to concentrate on the film. Dreadful experience.
5 -- Give the reader a reason to want more
An unusual plot twist right up front doesn't hurt, as long as it's not forced. Don't save all the great stuff for the middle because it may never get read.
And of course, make it my absolute best effort. When I submit to a contest like the Lone Star competition, if I'm lucky, I'll get a conscientious judge who gives me great feedback. Hopefully I'll take it to heart and use that feedback to learn, to improve my manuscript, and to move closer to publication.
Peace & Blessings,
Peace & Blessings,
Stay focused. Be deliberate. Believe.