Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Judges Are People Too!

I've recently had the priviledge of being a judge for the contemporary romance section of an unpublished writers' contest.

A month ago six entries dropped into an email and I was one of three people who was going to decide whether that entry was worthy of being a finalist and being judged by an editor and/or agent.

It's a role that I approach with much trepidation. Who am I, being no Rachel Hauck myself, to judge someone else's work? To critique their baby and have it come up wanting? Or (almost worse) to find myself an early reader of a gem of an entry that I suspect will find its way to publication long before I ever do.

As a judge I am very aware that I am holding someone's dream on my screen. That every 1 I give is going to be like a spear through the heart of the person at the receiving end of my score sheet and will likely result in tears. That the person who opens their result and finds themselves the recipients of an almost perfect score will be doing laps around their lounge room.

I know, because I've been both those people. I've had judges rave and give me scores that catapulted me into the hallowed realm of "finalist". I've had others give me scores and comments so searing that it's been weeks or months before I've hauled myself up out of my puddle of anguish to write again.

I've been told my writing is witty and funny and authentic and wonderful. I've also been told that my characters are self absorbed, my plot non-existent, my dialogue pointless and that my writing was so bad it caused one judge to "lose the will to live".

Some of you are reading this are shortly going to be the recipients of scoresheets, maybe even one of mine! What they contain may give your dreams wings, or they may cause you to consider walking away.

Judges are people. We generally HATE giving 1s and 2s. Last year when I gave my first 1 I was so stressed out that I emailed the contest co-ordinator asking her to cross-check my marking to make sure I wasn't being too harsh. I also wrote almost a page of notes to the contestant explaining my scoring because I knew how much it hurt to receive such a low score without the judge giving me any real reasons as to why.

I also had the opposite problem. I had one entry that was so enthralling, so fantastic and so awe inspiring that in two pages I knew I had in my hands a writer far more talented than I. I drooled over her sentences marvelling at her exquisite sentence compilation that made scenes dance on the page. I wished that I knew the author's name so I could write her her first fan letter. But I didn't, so I wrote it on her scoresheet instead. I was devastated when I reached the end of the entry. I prayed that she got a publishing contract so I could one day read her entire book. I had no doubt that her entry would not only final, but very probably take out the overall winner spot.


I was bewildered. I was bereft. I contemplated emailing the co-ordinator to ask them to double check that a mistake hadn't been made. How could it not have finaled? How could my two fellow judges not have recognised the genius that they had in their hands? How could they have denied this incredibly talented writer the opportunity to be read by an agent/editor? I agonised that maybe the two marks I had given her off a perfect score had made the difference between it finaling and not.

That, more than anything else, demonstrates the reality of writing contests. At the end of the day, a judge is still just one person's opinion. A judge can passionately love your entry, or they can passionately hate it, they're still just one person. My vote was just one of three. As much as I couldn't believe it, the other two obviously didn't feel the same way.

Which makes sense, because judges are just readers. Jump on Amazon. Every book that has received five stars, has also received one and two stars. We're a weird bunch humans. We can't even agree on what qualifies as a great book.

 So for all you contestees out there, what about you? What is the best advice you've ever received from a judge? The worst? When you get that email from the co-ordinator and it's just sitting there, waiting for you to open it, what do you do? How do you deal with great results and horrible ones?

P.S. Five months later I felt vindicated when I found out that the super-talented Jodi Hedlund had been signed by Bethany House. The entry that I judged, retitled The Preacher's Bride is her debut novel, and will be released later this year.


  1. One of the reasons I regularly volunteer to judge contests is in the hope of finding that amazing, wonderful story and being the one to encourage a new writer. Along the way, I've read my share of stinkers (but I would never tell a contestant her writing robbed me of the will to live -- that's just plain nasty and of no benefit to anyone save the judge's ego)that force me to re-evaluate my own work for the flaws I see in others. Last year I read a terrific entry, one that had me crying to read the rest of the story. To date, the writer has not found an editor or an agent to take on the project. I think I'm more disappointed than the author. Congratulations to you, Kara, for being a conscientious and thoughtful judge.

  2. Thanks for the insight into contests and judging. I know last year reading one book it annoyed me so much especially the heroine and it would have been in my bottom 10 for the year but on most lists it was in the top 10. Its interesting how we all have different tastes so I can understand how you would have the differing views.
    Im glad the one you loved is now going to be released.

  3. Thank you for the interesting post.

    I'm sure you're looking forward to the release of The Preacher's Bride.

  4. I so identify with your post, Kara! In fact I have several entries I still have to judge right now for an Australian contest. Last year I too even emailed the co-ordinator because I was so distressed at having to mark one entry so low. I spent heaps of time trying to explain to the writer just why I had marked her down and have to confess feeling relieved when my score was not the lowest she received from other judges!

  5. LOL! I love this post! I've entered contests a few times and finally concluded that they're not for me. I have my reasons, but at the end of the day, I'm better off for not entering. I don't think I would want to judge one either! I think it's a good reminder though, that this IS a subjective business. And worse than that, the bottom line comes down to what will SELL. But we still keep at it, masochists that we are!! Congrats to all who did enter and finaled, and I ditto the congrats to Jody!!