Inspired by Judging and Pilgrims…
From late summer through fall of last year I slogged along the road to The Holy Land (aka a traditional publishing deal), with a troop of fellow pilgrims, several of whom are Thursday’s Children. *waves*. We were a merryish band of hopefuls, joking to hide our insecurities, sharing bits of our writerly life stories, trying to offer helpful suggestions to each other, clutching our offerings in our sweaty hands as we approached each shrine. And by shrine, I mean contest, you know how I love metaphors…
At any given stop along the way, some might receive the blessing of a contest victory, or an agent offer or, or the cautious benediction of an agent request. Others might garner the praise of contest organizers and judges. Many might get only “constructive” feedback. I know for me it was hard not to view this kind of result as “your writing sucks, but here’s a few ideas that MIGHT help.”
This past week I was one of the decision-makers, part of a panel deciding victory, or defeat. Agent Query Kombat matched thirty-two pairs of contestants head to head. The experience was humbling for me. It also gave me a new appreciation for our brilliant writing community and also of the work that agents do on a daily basis as they mine the slushpile looking for gold. Thank you to Michelle Hauck for inviting me to judge. If you’re not following her, you should, she’s got a great blog and is a wonderful person.
Here are some things I’d heard before, but until last week didn’t feel in my bones to be the absolute truth.
1. Writing a query and writing a story require different skill-sets. Sometimes writers have one, sometimes both. It really IS genuinely disappointing to read a killer query followed by an underwhelming writing sample.
2. Typos have a nasty aftertaste.
3. Vagueness in a query is not alluring, it’s frustrating. “Mysterious” requires explanation, as does “losing everything”.
4. Overly contrived character names, including regular names with weird alternative spellings, irritate me. (But this is just a personal peeve). Also, if you’ve named a character Ash or Asher, you’re part of a naming trend.
5. Pretend. Every. Word. Costs. You. Money. And. You’re. Poor. This is especially true in your actual writing. When you’re pinning everything on a sample, don’t repeat ideas or words (other than pronouns, conjunctions etc.)
6. Make your opening engaging, but not overwhelming. Pull me in through action or emotion, but don’t make the action so fast-paced I can’t follow, or the emotion so over the top that I can’t relate to an MC I’ve just met.
7. Humor is a great way to engage your reader. It’s disarming when someone makes you laugh or smile. Humor can take the form of a hilarious situation, or an MC’s voice that is either Wanda Sykes/Dawn French/Will Ferrell funny or a quieter voice laced with dry observational wit. Fear also sucks the reader in, but scaring the reader is harder to pull off when the MC isn’t someone the reader cares about yet.
8. There IS lots of subjectivity involved, whether it’s genre, or voice, or plot. Let’s say you’ve written a historical fiction about a sheriff’s wife who left cultured Boston for a lawless Western frontier town, and you’re being judged by someone whose passion is hard sci-fi… Your entry REALLY has to knock his or her socks off. But being judged by someone who’s passionate about your chosen genre also means you must come up with something “new” or a new spin on something “old”, otherwise the judge won’t be impressed.
9. All these things ARE risky beginnings – backstory, info-dumps, too many characters all at once (especially if there’s similarity among names or difficult names), passive voice.
10. Feedback can ultimately be more valuable than a contest win and it doesn’t actually mean your writing sucks. I’d venture to say that statistically few people get an agent through contests. Weaknesses in your query and your writing sample (which often hint at overall issues in your ms) CAN be fixed so that you DO get an agent or a small publisher offer.
Don’t be afraid to enter writing contests, they’re great opportunities to learn a few things, and meet other writers and people in the pub industry.
Don’t let “winning” go to your head
and don’t let “losing” get to your heart.
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I have a whole new appreciation after reading a hundred entries. I can really see how agents request are totally subjective. The key therefore remains to have a great query and opening page to catch that subjective attention.
Yes! I thought it was very interesting comparing my reactions to other judges’ reactions-sometimes black and white.
Brilliant post, Rhiann. You tackled a tough subject and spiked it with enough humor that it went down whiskey smooth. 😉 Judging sounds like one of those things that everyone should do for the experience, though I suspect not everyone can do it well. Kinda like queries vs scenes.
I can’t play this week–I have too much homework. I’m halfway through my scene chart, and if I don’t get that done, I’ll never know how much I suck at querying. 😛 But I’ll peek in on the others when I take breaks.
Scene chart? Is that like a synopsis done in a more graphic format? We’ll miss you this week, hope you’ll rejoin next week 🙂
It is. Except it allows me to view the POV GMCD at a glance and discover weaknesses in the plot construction. I’ll definitely be back–but perhaps more e/o week while I finish the WIP. I stopped writing for a while and TC helped me jumpstart that.
Oh, I’m so glad that TC helped reignite your spark 🙂
lovely, as always! my favorite was #5 – every word counts, especially in a sample. good reminders! 🙂
I’ve been known to write that on crits I’ve done too 😉
Great post. I haven’t judged queries like that, but have been a judge for a RWA chapter and read/rated the first 10K words of completed paranormal romance manuscripts. I learned so much from the experience, and promptly went back and almost completely rewrote the first 10K words of my own manuscript. 😉
Weird how seeing someone else’s missteps can really help you hone in on your own, eh?
I would love to judge a writing contest. I’ve judged a lot of speech competitions and there are definite similarities, but I would love this experience in writing. I think, like critique, any critical examination of your own craft will make you better at it yourself.
I’m doing Round 2 now and coming up against situations where some of my favorites are up against each other – even MORE difficult to pick winners.
Holy Land – ha. It’s so nice when writers who have “made” it can give a little back to their writing community. Good for you, hun! I’m also a big fan of a little humor and then – goes a long way towards likeability.
Well, I know you’ve already given back (that’s how we met) and you’re about to do it again!
I would be HORRIBLE as a judge. Part of me would be editing every sentence because of dayjob and the other part going “I MUST have!” LOL
And you hit the nail on the head. Great post!
Then maybe you’d be a great mentor! *files nugget away for future reference*
I’ve done it a couple of times… and felt the pressure of making the right decision and not missing anything. I think I prefer to enter the competitions.
It’s definitely a different kind of pressure 😉
Spot on post. Thanks for being a part of QK 🙂
It was/is a great experience, so happy to have been invited 🙂
Some of the most solid advice I’ve seen in a long run. Now if only it was as easily done as said 🙂
No kidding! I’ll be interested to see how our LAV judges view their experiences after the contest is over 🙂
Super helpful post! #8 really stands out for me. I’ve judged a lot of RWA contests (first 10 pages, first 20, etc), and I’m always stunned when I absolutely love an entry but it doesn’t final, because the other 2 judges gave it low scores. This is such a subjective business! That’s why I always prefer to enter contests with feedback. Even if I don’t make it to the next round, it’s great to know why the judges didn’t pick me.
Indeed! And why agents who take the time to provide even a morsel of insight into why they passed on a full/partial sub are SAINTS, at least in my book.
Great post. You made a lot of good points. I bet you were an awesome judge. I like judging contests because I like to encourage others–tell them what they’re doing right, in my subjective opinion, and perhaps give them advice that will help them take their story to the next level.
Yes, that is the “fun” part, lol.
This was really helpful Rhiann. Writing – or rather trying to get published – is such a minefield, isn’t it? There are so many things to think about and to make sure you do/don’t do when applying to an agent or entering a contest, or even self publishing. It’s not easy.
Definitely NOT easy, but hard for non-writers to see that sometimes.
Great, GREAT tips! I’ve done the whole contest circuit…at one point last year I was doing three at once! I agree, the critique/advice/insight received can definitely be worth more than where you place. I haven’t judged yet, but will come July and am super excited about it! 😉
I’m super excited about your judging “debut” too! 😀
Being on the judging side actually sounds like a great experience: weighing all the feels you have for the entries and trying to separate out why you think one is better than another. I can see how it could apply to how you see your own work.
On the being judged side, getting feedback is great, and it’s a wonderful way of meeting new writer friends. Still, it can be scary and intimidating. Sometimes people forget fragile egos and take criticism too far. Thankfully, QK hasn’t been like that!
I absolutely adore that puppy gif, btw. I’ve been watching him for 5 minutes… hahaaa (but true)
That IS a cute puppy. I agree, esp. the first couple of times entering a contest and “baring” your work can be anxiety-inducing.
What great advice. Love hearing your thoughts after the contest! So true 🙂
Thanks for the post and for judging QK! I learned so much through the judges’ comments and from reading and commenting on other entries that I’m beside myself. My finished MG novel is now my current WIP again and I plan to use what I learned to make it better. I’m as appreciative of the constructive criticism as I am of the positive notes. Even if I do not get through to round three, I have won. Again, thanks to all the judges and all the contest organizers out there! This new writer salutes all you veterans who give back.
I’m glad you feel that way – and really, contests can be a great way of testing the waters with your work. Sometimes an ms you think is ready, really isn’t and you’ll stand a much better shot of getting an agent once you’ve revised with helpful feedback in mind.
I’m a truant this week (sorry) but wanted to comment. I had an experience with this when mentoring for Pitch Wars. I was a ninja mentor which meant I could pick from all the submissions. I got to experience the overwhelm of looking through, the realizing how subjective it is (radical difference in tastes sometimes), and also the excitement of seeing some stories I was aching to read. It’s been fun to see some of the authors get agents and deals. You do learn a lot from working “on the other side of the desk.” I’ve also been doing some reading for an editor and writing reports on the books and what needs to be improved. Enjoy that too.
Yes, I learn a lot from CPing and betaing that helps me in my own work. Sorry you can’t join us with a post this week, but TC is designed to be flexible so it’s all good 🙂
Great advice, Rhi. Hopefully we’ll get to the promised land soon!
Yes, my feet are getting sore…
Fabulous tips! Particularly numbers 5, 6 and 10. Feedback is everything when constructive and if you listen to it can only help in making your novel stronger.
Absolutely! Without feedback I’m pretty sure I’d still be querying…
It feels like it would be extremely difficult!
Not necessarily pulling out the good from the passable, but choosing one over the other to decide which ones move on. I’m sure it becomes extremely subjective… but I’d prefer that over some sort of figure skating-esque points system, hehe.
It must’ve driven you mad!