One piece of advice I’d been given was that I should not only enter writing contests, I should consider judging one. It’s supposed to help you see your own writing in a new light.
Having had the chance to judge some entries in a contest, I can verify this is true.
I found that the stories I was given fell into three distinct groups: the good, the bad, and the meh — stories that were maddening because they had the potential of a good story hidden beneath a lot of stuff that didn’t need to be there.
The good ones, I tried to praise specifics. From my own experience, if the only feedback I get is “Great! Nice job.” I feel as if the judge skimmed my writing while watching their favorite TV show. I tried to include the elements of the story that most resonated with me while I read.
The bad stories, I felt guilty because I was stomping on their dream. I tried to criticize lightly and to point out all the good that I saw in the stories to balance out the things I had to point out that did not work for me.
The in-between stories were the hardest to judge. I ran into two of these. They had well-rounded characters, vivid settings, and loads of potential conflict, but I had to force myself to keep reading. They felt “off.”
Fortunately, I went off and read another of the entries. This one blew me away from the start. I was sorry when the excerpt ended, and I want to read the published version to know what happens next. So I took this entry and matched against the earlier ones to see if I could see any crucial difference.
What stood out in the awesome story was that not only did it start out with a character encountering a problem, the heroine was doing something about it. All three of these stories (the two meh and the one good) had characters with problems, but only one had an active heroine. She couldn’t solve the problem, but she tried. And each step she took toward solving it told me something about her, about the characters around her, about her world.
I did not have a synopsis of any of the stories, so I cannot say for certain, but I suspect that in the ‘meh’ stories, the main characters were eventually going to start doing more than mulling over their feelings.
Lesson du jour: If my main character doesn’t start out doing something in the first few pages, acting instead of just reacting, the reader will stop caring about what happens next.
Off to look at my own characters…