Monday, January 07, 2008

Judged by Your Peers: Contests & Writers

It's the start of the silly season again. What that means for many RWA members who are yet to be published is that the first three or so chapters of their novels-in-progress have found their way to the desks of published authors for judging in contests like the prestigious Golden Heart, HOLT Medallion, Touch of Magic, Daphne du Maurier and others. I've judged the major RWA contests and several of the local chapters for four years or more now (time blurs when you're on deadline). Because I'm published in SFR, I tend to get paranormal manuscripts to judge (though I have judge historicals and mysteries as well, lately). I've read some incredibly good unpublished manuscripts. I've seen some horrors.

I take time—a lot of time—grading each submission. These days, the chance for judge's comments are becoming rare so all you can do is plop a score down. I wrestle over the low ones because I know the printed matter sitting in my grubby little hands is someone's baby, someone's heart and soul, someone's sweat and blood and tears. But I have given low scores because the reality is, giving a high mark to a work that is simply not "there" yet is doing no favor to the writer. Sure, a high score will get you to the finals and read by a NY editor or major agent, but if your writing is sub-par, you're going to go down in serious flames at that point.

The sad thing is, I've yet to see a manuscript where someone actually Could Not Write. What I see are manuscripts where the flaws outnumber the plusses, where a writer is so anxious to get his or her story on paper that style and craft go flying out the window.

Some of the worst are honestly in the paranormal realm (though it may be that I simply see more of those because of my published specialty). But I think the paranormal (science fiction romance, futuristics, vampire/werewolf romance, fae, elves, etc.) has additional problems because, for the most part, setting isn't a given, a shoe-in, a throw-away. Setting and world-building are as important as character and pacing in the pages of a PNR/SFR.

So let's talk about some of the things NOT to do in your next contest submission in that genre:

  1. The character doesn't fit the world. You've constructed a society where people lives in unheated castles with no plumbing, but they have starships. They wear loin cloths but have laser pistols. Granted, you could explain that by creating some serious cultural schisms (ie: the Amish in today's society) but I'm not seeing that. I'm seeing a costume drama where the writer decided that being outer space would also be a Cool Thing to have in the story. It's jarring, it makes no sense and I have a hard time, as a reader, understanding how your character got to be where he is with no access to technology. Yet when he's kidnapped by The Bad Guys he automatically knows how to pilot an X-3 Razor Fightercraft and take it into hyperspace. Correspondence courses, maybe?

  2. The entire planet has the same weather, landscape, language and customs. Okay, maybe on a really small moon. Or, of course, if the planet's been colonized and/or terraformed and/or colonists lives in domes. The whole colonist-populated world has a different dynamic than indigenous. If you don't know how to build the societies and cultures on a planet, for Pete's sake, look under your feet. You're standing on one. Look at our cultural diversity, our weather patterns, our polar caps, our deserts, our rain forests. Yes, this is based on our position from our solar system's star (and other criteria related to that) but if you're positing a naturally populated world then it will be (if we're talking humans), in a similar set-up. But even Jupiter has weather. And Mars has polar caps. As an aside, I'm perfectly fine with the possibility that a political region (solar system, sector, quadrant or whatever) would have a "legalized" common language in addition to regional languages. English has become the common language of pilots on this planet. So a "standard" language over a sector or system is plausible as along as—AGAIN—you give a nod to the fact that there are regional languages, or at some point have been regional languages. I have a really hard time with manuscripts where everyone speaks ONLY English or ONLY whatever the outer space language is called. If nothing else, slang will differ by regions (what some of you call "soda" is called "pop" in other regions of the USA.)

  3. Things happen because you want them to: This is actually a common flaw that transcends genres. I've seen this problem in so many unpublished manuscripts. The writer forces an 'event' because that kind of event is needed. Yes, all writers make up the things that happen. But you have to set them up so they are logical to the plot, the characters, and the world. It's the logic and integration to the plot that are missing. I call it the "Just Happens To" syndrome. It's where coincidence and not conflict are fueling the plot. The heroine just happens to be walking down a crowded city street and a little girl just happens to drop her book bag and the heroine just happens to notice that (and no one else does) and pick it up and just happens then to go into a luncheonette where the waitress just happens to recognize the book bag as belonging to the hero's daughter (and the heroine just happens to be evasive when questioned about it) and just happens to call the hero on her cell phone who just happens to be across the street and he grabs a cop who just happens to be there so they can arrest the heroine for theft. Of course, it just happens that the hero is an attorney and he realizes the error and it just happens he needs a new secretary and it just happens the heroine just got her paralegal certification and so he offers her job to make up for his shabby treatment of her…and so on. It's a series of forced coincidences that stretch credibility after the third or fourth "just happens." Why would the attorney ASSUME theft? What kind of police officer would ASSUME a crime has been committed? Why wouldn't the heroine just say "I saw a little girl drop this, perhaps she lives around here?" Why in hell didn't she run after the kid and give her the book bag back? It's one big misunderstanding (also called the BM in writerly lingo) and flimsy coincidence after another, just because the writer wants the heroine to be in the same office as the hero. Or on the same starship. Or in the same castle.

  4. Nothing happens (as opposed to "Just Happens To" above). I judged a nicely written fantasy piece recently that had lavish settings and a possibly interesting set up in a otherworldly kingdom—and NOT medieval, which was a very nice change!—but nothing happened to make me care to continue reading. I met the princess, who was the female protagonist. We see her tutor, her boredom with same, we meet some of her father's royal advisors, we meet the king. We get a glimpse of some medieval/typical European types coming to speak to this king, but what we've really gotten is a very boring day in this young woman's life and a Home-and-Gardens tour of her castle. I guessed the fact that she's bored is the impetus to the piece, but I was bored, too. Although the castle and surroundings were really lovely. But I kept waiting for something to happen. I kept waiting for the writer to give me a reason to care about the princess. Other than she was bored and prone not to listen to her elders, there was nothing interesting about her. Being a princess isn't interesting enough. Granted, in real life, very few of us are on first name basis with a princess (a few drama queens, definitely. But a princess…). In fantasy, however, princesses are dripping off the castle walls. We have a plethora of princesses. Especially late teenaged ones who are bored with their tutors. Writing guru Dwight Swain advises to start your novel at the point of no return, at the point where something happens to your main character to force him on a path from which there is only one direction: into more trouble. Noted SF author Jacqueline Lichtenberg tells you that conflict is the essence of a novel's story. Listen to those wise words. Start your novel with (logical) trouble. Save the tour of the castle for later.

I have a feeling that those manuscripts I see that fall prey to these common and very fixable errors are because the writers don't have crit partners in place vetting their words. I can't stress the importance of crit partners. You, writer, know what you meant to say. But you may not have said so, and your brain—submerged and bloated by the writing process—isn't always capable of telling you that. You need to have "fresh eyes" vet your writing, especially before you send it out to be judged. And those "fresh eyes" should not be your mother or your best friend, unless your mother is Nora Roberts and your best friend is Jacqueline Lichtenberg. I'm not seeing bad writing out there in contest-land. I'm seeing common, fixable errors.

So BIC HOK! (Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard) And get thee to a good crit partner. And you'll win the next contest you enter. ~Linnea

SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel's Ghost, coming July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

…and suddenly I love you beyond all measure is not just words but a heart, a soul bursting open, a stripping raw of all pretense. It is Sully, it is Gabriel, it is his tears on my face, his body in mine, our minds seamless. It is hopes and dreams and failures. It is apologies and a prayer for redemption. It is heaven and damnation.

All that I am is yours pales beside it.

It is everything.

It is love.


  1. Really cool poem at the end!

    Is there any point in entering a contest if the writer isn't going to be getting in constructive feedback? I mean the odds of winning, the prize money, the odds of actually catching the attention of an agent or editor who already has a bazillion other things to do seem mighty slim to me. Seems to me crit partners and regular slush piles are the way to go. But, then, my experience with contests is limited.

  2. Not a poem at the end, Kimber. A section from my next book, SHADES OF DARK. No poem. ;-)

    I don't know exactly why a number of contests have stopped giving personal feedback. I can guess. 1, it takes a lot more of the judge's time. 2, not every judge is adept at giving feedback and feelings have been known to be hurt. 3, it becomes more subjective than objective (see 2).

    Almost all do give scores, such as "on a scale of 1 to 5"... Characterization: 5, Pacing, 3.5, Grammar: 4.5 and so on. So you do get a feel for what you did well (characterization) and what you didn't.

    As for a contest finalist (and the finalists do get read by the agent/editor) catching the agent/editor's attention...uh, yeah. That's what happens. The agent or editor agreed to read the finalists so yeah, they give those manuscripts a lot of thought and attention. Writers do become authors because of (the respected, legit) contests. Not all finalists or winners get "bought" but many do. And finaling or winning in a (respected) contest does edge you out of the slush pile.

    I'm a huge proponent of crit partners. But contests can get you feedback from the professionals who actually buy books. That's valuable feedback.

  3. “Setting and world-building are as important as character and pacing in the pages of a PNR/SFR.”

    As a reader, I'm pretty passionate about believability within a storyline. That more than anything will make or break a story for me. Patricia Briggs' website has an interesting article up about World Building 101 which relates it to theatrical productions: “Getting a detail wrong is like leaving a fake palm-tree on stage for the castle scene . . . the illusion is dispelled, and rather than Camelot the audience sees paper mache and grease paint.” I think that's a really good description of what happens when something in a story unsuspends the disbelief.