Friday, April 22, 2011


I knew this job wouldn’t be easy when I accepted it.

Take three 50-page entries and apply an objective set of criteria to them, give them each a score and provide their authors with feedback that was both constructive and relevant. I had volunteered as a judge in my local chapter’s annual writing contest, and I was going to have to use all my skills as a writer, an editor and a diplomat. After all, these manuscripts represented hours of the authors’ hard work—and more, their blood and tears. My snarky humor might not be received with the same enthusiasm with which it was delivered.

So with a very sober attitude I took red pen in hand to do my judicial duty. And not surprisingly I learned a few things.

First of all, these people were very good. Thank God they weren’t competing in my category. And secondly, judging your own manuscript by the criteria contest judges use is a great way to identify and fix the problem areas you may have missed.

We all know a manuscript should be free of spelling and grammatical errors. That’s the easy stuff. A good critique partner will help you tag the awkward sentences and the paragraphs that don’t work, the dialogue that doesn’t ring true or the major holes in the plot. But it takes a really stellar CP and a lot of vigilance on your own part to spot the underlying weaknesses that keep a good manuscript from being a great one, things like goals, motivation, conflict (GMC). The balance between the hero and the heroine. Characterization. Pacing.

The contest criteria insist that the judge give a grade to all of these things—in the first few pages of the novel. There’s no time to see if the hero gets more space later or if we learn more about the heroine in Chapter Four. If her motivation is not clear by the end of this sample, you’re done. If the judge can’t see what the hero and the heroine want or how this book is going to have any kind of conflict (between them, between them and the universe, whatever) by page 50 (or page 35, or, God help us, word 4000), then he or she must give a low score for GMC.

Of course, this translates directly to the real world in terms of how well we’re able to engage the reader in the first few pages, whether that reader be an agent, an editor, or someone picking up the book off the shelf. If the GMC is clear right away, then the reader will want to turn the page to find out how that conflict is resolved.

The same is true for every element examined by the criteria, so that those first few pages have to become a sort of microcosm of the book itself. Everything you want to do right throughout your manuscript, you have to do right on a smaller scale in that 50 pages. That means there can be no wasted words, no throwaways in that first couple of chapters. Everything has to count toward building character, explaining GMC, setting the pace, describing the place, creating the romance.

Of course, the argument could be made that your entire manuscript should be just that tight. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of focus. I do know that trying to meet the word count for a contest can be like being fitted for a new pair of glasses. You see the rough edges that need a trim everywhere.
It’s been an education in itself to see how these talented writers have risen to the challenge of meeting the contest criteria. Some do better than others. But I’m learning from them all. Being a judge has made me a better contestant—and a better writer.

Donna’s Journal

Actions I've taken as a writer. Where am I? What am I doing?

I’ve nearly finished my contest entry for the Tampa Area Romance Authors contest, due May 1. I only get 4000 words to show what I’ve learned as a contest judge in my Virginia chapter contest, and it’s a challenge! I just wish I’d had this experience to draw on earlier this spring.

I’m also starting to think about agent/editor meetings for the New York RWA conference. The list of agents and editors who will be taking pitches at the conference is posted on the RWA website ( and is organized by area of interest. Several agents now list SF as an area of interest and may be worth checking out. Still no word on when the frenzied online grab for the coveted pitch slots with the agents and editors will be held. Watch the RWA site, or your chapter loop for the latest updates.

New authors, cool web sites, great resources, great workshops, great online sites!

My favorite SF site i09 ( knows how hard it is to come up with a new alien beastie every week. Resident bloggers Charlie Jane Anders and Gordon Jackson come to the rescue with the helpful “How to Create a Scientifically Plausible Alien Life Form”, a blog on exobiology for writers. Get inspired by clicking here:!5784971/how-to-create-a-scientifically-plausible-alien-life-form.


1 comment:

  1. Donna, I think you hit on a key point that's often overlooked by aspiring writers. Everyone tells you you must read, and while that's true, you don't often hear the advice you must critique and you must judge. But I believe it's true.

    Reading other's work and determining what works and what doesn't for you--as a reader--will help you see the flaws in your own work as well as avoid some of the pitfalls we can so easily fall into because we're too close to our own work. IMHO it's one of the best ways to educate yourself on how to put the "compelling" in your prose.

    I've done some judging but I need to do a lot more, especially in the Paranormal category of contests I don't enter.

    Best wishes on your upcoming entries!


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