Writing Contests — They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Why Pay an Anonymous Judge to Smack Me Down?

Jeff SalterBy 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’ — contests 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 those contests. 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. Ouch.

How I got to the contest table

Shortly after switching from poetry to fiction in 2006, my 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 went 0-for-10.

In my first 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

gavelAbout some of those contests, I have an image of paying good money and expending a lot of effort and anguish… 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 (in my opinion) poorly selected categories of evaluation. And most had (in my opinion) categories of critical analysis which were badly flawed in their weighting. To me, many seemed to be exercises in technical achievement which tacitly discouraged ‘creative’ writing itself.

Examples (with slight exaggeration):

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!


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 — complete. 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 middling 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 to think about the entry 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 — in reference to a maternal parent. 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 the child’s 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 (often flawed) 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?

Jeff Salterwho has written 12 novels and five novellas, already has 15 fiction titles released with three royalty publishers. His most recent is “Not Easy Being Android” released in February by TouchPoint Romance. At least one more title is due out this year and he has several works in progress.

About the author: contempadmin

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