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Confessions of a Contest Judge

Recently, I judged entries in several writing contests. In my pre-pub days I entered several contests, and though I never won, I learned a great deal from the judges and their comments. With my own experiences in mind, I do my best to make constructive comments. Pre-pub writers are often hungry for feedback (as I was) so I give as much as I can.

I assume if you’ve entered a contest you want to learn. So, no sugar coating, sugar. You’re going to get an honest assessment. Critiques can sting, but the goal is to make the book better. And even I’m not gushing over your work, I will always find something positive to say. It takes guts to put your ideas on a page and share them, and I respect that.

From this latest round of contests, I had a few takeaways to share.

Grab Me on the First Line. Never underestimate the power of a great opening line. In this fast-paced world, editors and readers make snap decisions about your story. Is this worth my time?

My favorite opening lines tell me something about one of the characters. Hero, heroine, villain…it doesn’t matter who you choose to lead with, but make me care.

Trust Your Reader. You’ve read those books where one character is talking to another and they ‘discuss’ all the things that have happened to them over the last thirty years? It’s called the Data Download and it’s a fast tract to chasing away your reader. Your readers are smart, and they can figure out a lot with the right details. So when in doubt, less is more.

Character Matters. I can forgive a lot in a contest entry, if you make me care about your characters. Conversely, beautiful writing won’t wow me if the characters are flat. Let's face it. Perfect characters aren’t nearly as interesting as the ones with delicious flaws.

Keep Writing!!! This is the name of the game. No matter how hard or positive your judge has been, Keep Writing. I am certain there is a story inside of you, and if you stop writing, we’ll never get to read it.

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