And from the Russian judge…

Overall, my own contest experiences have been wonderful.

I began my contest career with the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot, a contest for unpublished writers of Regency era romance. After entering just to get some feedback, I won it in 1999 with what became my first book, LORD LANGDON’S KISS. Since then, my books have won or finaled in the Booksellers’ Best, the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Holt Medallion, the Award of Excellence, the Golden Quill and the Golden Leaf.

Which means that, good Risky that I am, I’m a contest slut and have done pretty well at it!

However, my results haven’t been consistent. Books that won one contest sometimes didn’t even hit the finals in others (and often the competition was the same). In the RWA contests, the Golden Heart and the RITA, I’ve had very mixed scores. With 5 judges, I usually get 3 very high scores and 2 that are low to abysmal. I once got a 8.2 and a 2.0 for the same book, out of 9 possible. (Don’t ask me why they don’t use a scale of 10, maybe to keep us from getting swollen heads?)

Taking off my contestant hat, I’m sometimes surprised that books I’ve loved haven’t always hit the finals. I mean, how could anyone not recognize Laura Kinsale’s FLOWERS FROM THE STORM as one of the best historical romances ever, not just of that year? Julia Ross’s historicals are amazing and have not hit the RITA finals either though they’ve won all sorts of accolades elsewhere. (It’s possible these books weren’t entered, though it seems unlikely.)

So how does one explain these discrepancies? I’ve got a couple of theories.

There’s the polarizing writer theory. I use it to console myself when I get the love/hate spray of scores. I’d rather be a polarizing than boring. But controversial books have sometimes won. Laura Kinsale’s SHADOWHEART is the best example I can think of.

Then there’s the category expectations theory–that a book that is well-written but doesn’t quite fit its category may also get mixed scores. I am guessing that some of my low scores have been from judges who don’t believe there should be sex in traditional Regencies. I entered LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE as a Short Historical due to length reasons, and though it didn’t final the marks were consistently high. (I’m taking this as a Good Omen.) OTOH sexy Regencies have won, including Sophia Nash’s A PASSIONATE ENDEAVOR and our own Diane’s A REPUTABLE RAKE. So it’s not a definitive theory either.

I honestly think it comes down to a combination of a good story and luck in getting the right panel of judges who appreciate it. I’ve heard debates on how to make judging more objective, but I doubt it’s possible because reading itself is so subjective. I think it’s best for a writer not to stress too much about contests, though that’s easier to say than do.

A final thought…without the luck factor, awards ceremonies would be much less exciting, wouldn’t they? So what are your opinions on contest judging? Do your favorite books usually win or not? Any ideas why?

Elena, proud contest slut
LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, Desert Rose Golden Quill Best Historical Romance, 2006
www.elenagreene.com

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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20 Responses to And from the Russian judge…

  1. Elena,
    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of your earlier books missed the RITA finals because of not fitting the judges’ conception of what made a Regency. I think Sophia and I benefited from the more recent RITA judging changes where judges receive a variety of sub genre books and not just the one category they always judged in the past. That left the door open for newish ideas.
    Even this more recent system is not perfect, because some judges might not “get” what is a Regency…or a category book…

  2. Kalen Hughes says:

    I wholeheartedly maintain that contests are a crapshoot. It’s luck of the draw with judges.

    When I finaled for the Golden Heart in 2005 my other MS (funny enough, the one I SOLD) got 2s and 3s (and one 8). 2s and 3s. Let’s think about this . . . to me those scores (again on the mysterious RWA scale of 1-9; with 9 being the best) pretty much means English is not your first language and you can’t string two sentences together. I do not think this is one of my problems, as my other MS bloody well finaled.

    And just to prove my “crapshoot” point, I tossed FLOWERS FROM THE STORM aside half read, utterly bored with the story and irritated with the heroine, while Elena (and so many others) think it’s a seminal work in the genre. *SHRUG* There is no accounting for taste (but I still wouldn’t have given it a 2 or a 3, maybe a solid “meh” 6).

    Julia Ross, on the other hand, is a solid 9 in my book. I can’t believe she doesn’t have a RITA!

  3. Elena Greene says:

    Diane, you may be right about the change in judging system. Doubt we’ll ever really know. I do like it myself. I think it’s good to read out of genre and subgenre and I’m a pretty eclectic reader anyway.

    Kalen, my first sale book did nothing in the GH either. Also, I’ll forgive you for not loving FLOWERS FROM THE STORM if you forgive me for not loving David Rintoul as Mr. Darcy! 🙂

  4. Lois says:

    That sounds like my story in high school and college English classes. I wrote the exact same way in every class, but one class from one teacher I get an A, another class, another teacher, I’ll get a C. Ugh. I decided a long time ago that English is like the Medical profession. . . it’s all opinion. LOL Sure, I’m probably overdramatizing that, but it’s how it felt in school. 🙂

    Lois

  5. Cara King says:

    Oh, I know what you mean about essays, Lois! That was one reason I was always more comfortable in math and science classes — you could learn the material, know you knew it, and get an A on the test. In English, essays are so subjective, that you never know… Even with the same teacher…

    As for the Ritas — I agree, it’s partly a crapshoot, just like the Golden Heart and other such contests. When there’s a very small number of judges judging you, the tastes and experiences of those few judges matter a lot.

    I think the conventional wisdom (which I happen to believe) about the Golden Heart is that all manuscripts that final are excellent, but an awful lot of great manuscripts never final. The Ritas are probably similar — they’re judged exactly the same way! (Though by somewhat more experienced judges, which can make a difference.)

    As for my Golden Heart experience — I finaled once, with a manuscript that never sold (still hoping though), and MY LADY GAMESTER, which won every other contest I entered it in, never finaled. (I did wonder if there were GH judges who marked it down for not being the light & fluffy & witty Regency that certain people think is the only real kind of Regency…)

    Cara

  6. Todd says:

    I think the real benefit of contests is that they are educational. Not for the people who enter them, mind you, but for their spouses. For example, I never knew there were so many variations of the sentence “That judge is a blinking idiot!”

    Todd-who-is-waiting-for-the-right-opportunity-to-put-his-new-found-knowledge-to-use

  7. Todd, you are very much growing on me, and I don’t mean like a fungus! You made me laugh out loud.

    I wholeheartedly agree that contests are a crap shoot. And like Cara, I believe that if a ms or a book makes the finals, it is positive validation of the book. If a book or ms doesn’t make the finals it means absolutely nothing.

    But for an unpublished writer and a new author, contests are a means of getting noticed. And when you hit the finals or win, it just feels so good!

  8. Todd,
    In case my “fungus” comment came out wrong, let me rephrase. I think you are so funny. I love your sense of humor. Keep it coming.
    Diane

  9. LOL, Todd! And I totally agree on everything said here about contests. They can be a fun little ego boost, something nice to put on the resume, but I don’t think finaling/not finaling really says anything about our publishability (is that a word?). First (and only) unpub contest I ever entered was the Royal Ascot, years ago. I got some good scores, great comments, and one stinker who gave me very low marks and said I had “some potential but need to work on my scenes.” I sold the thing the next week. Still wish I knew who that judge was, so i could say “I do TOO know how to set up scenes”. 🙂

    Kalen, I think Julia Ross did win a Rita under her Jean Ross Ewing name, but can’t remember the title. Maybe it’s on Cara’s list from yesterday.

  10. Cara King says:

    Kalen, I think Julia Ross did win a Rita under her Jean Ross Ewing name, but can’t remember the title.

    Yep! She won for LOVE’S REWARD.

    Cara

  11. Kalen Hughes says:

    Elena, you have deal.

  12. Kalen Hughes says:

    I think Julia Ross did win a Rita under her Jean Ross Ewing name

    Ok, so the world is not as wrong as I thought . . .good!

    MY LADY GAMESTER, which won every other contest I entered it in, never finaled. (I did wonder if there were GH judges who marked it down for not being the light & fluffy & witty Regency that certain people think is the only real kind of Regency…)

    My MS that finaled in the GH (Which will be my second book, as yet unnamed but I’m thinking it’ll be LORD SCANDAL or LORD SCOUNDREL) got a 37 (!) and a 57 in it’s other major contest outing and garnered the lovely quote, “I loathe everything about your hero.” LOL! I guess there really is no accounting for taste. I sooooooooo hope the judge who wrote that saw me final in the GH a few months later under the same title.

  13. Todd says:

    Diane,

    🙂

    Todd-who

  14. Cara King says:

    “I loathe everything about your hero.”

    Wow — that’s one of the most extreme judge comments I’ve ever seen!

    My most shocking was when one judge wrote in the margin “This is so bad.” I never did figure out if she was referring to the whole ms, or something specific like my use of passive verbs or something.

    Cara

  15. Kalen and Cara, you bring up one of my pet peeves about contests in which the judges make comments (as opposed to the GH where only a score is given). Negative comments like, “I loathe everything about your here” and “This is bad” are just NOT HELPFUL. They don’t explain why and they don’t offer ideas to fix it.
    One could easily say, “The way your hero is behaving now makes him unsympathetic. Explain his motivation in his thoughts when you are in his POV” OR “These sentences are too bland (or overwritten). Add some sensory detail (or tone down the sensory detail)”
    I think judges should always think about that hopeful writer who wrote the very best words they could think of and whose dreams are pinned on what the judge might say.

  16. Kalen Hughes says:

    Ah, judges . . . one of my friends just entered her first contest, and one of her lovely judges gave her a 2 (out of 5) for grammar. What was the complaint? Too many Em dashes. That’s it. I’m sorry, that is NOT a grammar issue, that’s a personal taste issue.

    The contest coordinator assured my friend when she complained about this that she was not the only person who had written to complain about that judge, and that they would not be using her again.

    What is wrong with people?

  17. Ah, judges. I don’t think I’m a particularly nice judge, but I always keep in my mind that no matter how poorly written an entry is or how cliched or how much the hero or heroine grates on my nerves, somewhere out there is a writer who’s poured her heart and soul into that entry, and who loves her story and her hero as much as I love any of mine. (Which are, of course, masterpieces, even if the publishing industry has yet to recognize my genius. 😉 )

    So I don’t say I loathe a hero. I say I had trouble connecting with him or warming to him, and try to offer suggestions that would make him more real and/or sympathetic without a complete personality transplant. And if the scoresheet asks “Would you like to read the rest of the story?” and my honest answer is “no,” I say so. But then I don’t follow the example of a judge on one of my entries who said, “There is nothing about this story that would make me want to keep reading it.” I treat it as a big-picture question and try to think what one or two improvements would most strengthen the story, and say something like, “If you clarify the hero’s motivation and polish your grammar, your story will become more intriguing and readable.”

  18. Susan,
    That is exactly the kind of judging I advocate. I think it is also wrong to tell a writer their work is wonderful if it isn’t. But you have to put a constructive spin on it and teach an alternative.
    With good judging like you are describing a new writer can learn a lot!

  19. sras says:

    Maybe in a contest, judges are more likely to let their own subjective feelings come through a little more than in other kinds like the RITA, though there may be wildly differing marks there as well. Are they judging by story, by structure, by overall impact? I know that I’ll often love a book that has gotten mixed or even bad reviews everywhere else.

    I’m not a writer, though I have judged a short-story contest. There, things seemed pretty obvious to me though the story I’d chosen as a strong second won while I have no idea where my “best” ended up.

    “What was the complaint? Too many Em dashes. That’s it. I’m sorry, that is NOT a grammar issue, that’s a personal taste issue.”

    (Sorry, I still haven’t figured out how to make that come out in italics.)

    Okay, perhaps this is not a real grammar issue, but it is a *punctuation* issue and punctuation is, as far as I know, a part of grammar. Any grammar book that you pick up will contain a section on punctuation. Just as you can’t put a comma wherever you like, you can’t put an em-dash wherever *you* think it might be good. It’s not a *personal* issue.

    I once read a book where there were em-dashes in almost every sentence. First of all, it made the book look like a piece of bad art. Second, the em-dashes appeared in the oddest places. It seemed as if she was putting em-dashes wherever she felt some sort of punctuation mark was needed but wasn’t sure which. I felt very much like tossing the book across the room, something I’ve never felt like doing before. I also felt like telling the author to get an editor/proofreader. Well, actually I did though I didn’t blame it on the em-dashes. (She had self-published.)

    I find the use of em-dashes growing wildly. It’s almost like a new fad in punctuation. And the author you spoke of had no other faults in grammar? Good for her if she didn’t. I’ve yet to read a book that doesn’t make me grind to a halt while I’m reading it because of a grammar-mistake–and more likely 7 or 8, of which some are real “ouches”. I’m not saying that the judge was totally right in this case but I know that I get *very* irritated by mistakes in grammar and vocabulary. But then, I’m trained in grammar and vocabulary while I couldn’t write a novel (by myself) if my life depended on it.

    Now that’s just *my* opinion because of where my language strengths lie.

  20. sras says:

    And yes, that whole rant could have been better written. However, for that I’d prefer it to sit for a while and go back to it after a few hours. With a blog you can’t do that.

    So Kalen, that was in answer to what you wrote about em-dashes

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