Monday, January 23, 2006

Glass Houses, Stones, and Contest Entries

I’ve been reading contest entries almost non-stop for the past week or so. Since I enter contests occasionally, I feel it’s only right I judge a few as well. After all, I know how much work it is for those judges to read and comment on my entries, so the least I can do is the same for others.

Karma, you know.

But I’m really not comfortable doing this. Each entry takes me ages to read, and I stress over each and every comment I make. (The exception is the Golden Heart; I still stress, but at least I don’t have to provide feedback.) I want to provide helpful, truthful comments, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either. It bugs me when I receive a judge's comment like “Where are they? You haven’t mentioned the setting,” when I can see where I mentioned it on pages 2, 4, and 7. Did the judge actually read the entry? I’ve also had judges make some pretty nasty comments as well. It makes me wonder if the judge gets some kick from saying hurtful things on a score sheet.

I don’t EVER want to be THAT judge. It takes guts to show your work to anyone, and no one deserves to be stomped on for trying. So I stress.

But part of the stress comes from the fact I don’t really feel qualified to be judging anyone. What the heck do I know? If I had a stinkin’ clue as to what was “good” or “sellable,” do you think I’d still be unpublished? There are several published books I’ve read that I think should still be under the author’s bed—not taking up space on the bookshelf. I wouldn’t have scored that entry very high at all—but an editor liked it enough to buy it. So what makes me think my opinion will do a writer any good at all in her quest to be published?

But there are some entries… The ones with unlikable or Too Stupid To Live heroines or overbearing jerks for heroes (even worse are the wimpy heroes). Entries with serious writing problems. Entries that make your head hurt trying to figure out what is going on. (Not that I had any of those in my batch this time.) How do I tactfully tell this writer she needs to start back at the beginning and review the basics or rethink her plot and characters? I don’t want to be the one who breaks her spirit.

“But Kimberly,” you say, “you’re a teacher. You “judge” stuff all the time. How is this any different?” This is very different. No student has even turned in 1000 words on Othello because she had some driving need inside her to discuss Iago’s motivation. Othello’s jealousy doesn’t keep her up nights wanting to be heard. Instead, she only did it because I MADE her do it. I’m holding her GPA hostage. Susie Student may be angry at a less-than-stellar grade, but it’s not going to crush her soul or keep her from writing the next paper.

I also have no problem assigning a grade because I made it very clear long before Susie Student started on that paper what I expected of her. She knows going in that I expect A, B and C, and if she doesn’t deliver it, she’ll get a D for sure. Also, I’m available by email or phone to help her along the way. The writer of the entry doesn’t know I’m a big stickler when it comes to dialogue or comma usage or whatever. Susie Student got a handout clearly explaining it.

“But what about your CP? You comment on her stuff all the time.” Yes I do. But my CP knows me; she knows that I’m a nice person with her best interests at heart. She knows I don’t make myself feel bigger by cutting down what she’s written. She knows the “Whoa! Huh? Where did this come from?” note only means I didn’t follow where she went—not that I think she is going in the wrong direction. She can also email me back for clarification of that “Huh?” And if she doesn’t agree, she can email me back and argue. And if I get too snippy with my comments, she has my home address and phone number and can tell me to get my head out of my butt to my face.

None of those options are open to the writer who entered a contest not knowing who would be judging her entry.

Trust me, my CP has made me thoroughly aware of my own weaknesses in my writing. I love her for it, but it means I’m standing in the middle of my glass house with a handful of stones marked MOTIVATION, SHOW DON’T TELL, EXCESSIVE WORDINESS, RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN, and POV.

So contest entrants, know the judge who made the hateful comment on your entry or hurt your feelings was not me. EVER.

Karma, remember?

Side note: My CP is fabulous. Both as a writer and a critter. I removed several unnecessary thats from this blog entry in her honor.


Playground Monitor said...

Whine, whine, whine. I could have commented on this earlier OR I could have written 7 pages today. Hmmmm?

I know how you feel. I've been on both sides of the situation and it's not comfortable on either side. But I am grateful that there are folks who volunteer their time to judge contests. I always try to remember the "Golden Rule." I guess part of it's my southern upbringing and a grandma who always said "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Well done, PC.

Problem Child said...

But I feel unloved and alone out here without comments on my post. It makes me seem like I've been ousted from the clique...::cue nightmares of high school mean-girls::


(don't tell anyone, but in my family, it's "if you can't say something nice about someone, come sit next to me")

Angel said...

Did I mention the 40 emails waiting in my inbox? Which makes me wonder how y'all managed to get any work done today.

I've only started judging contests recently, but have found it both interesting and hard. It is interesting seeing the different entries and whether the writing works for me. It is hard because, like PC, I'm afraid of being the one to crush someone's dreams.

And sometimes it is just hard to force yourself to read something objectively even though the premise doesn't work for you. Just because I don't care for slimy aliens (or something like that), doesn't mean they aren't well written. And that always has to be kept in mind.

I'm grateful to the Southern Magic chapter of RWA who gave us a workshop in judging before they let us loose on their entries. It was extremely informative and gave us a chance to ask questions about any concerns we had. Not to mention being a responsible action on their part as contest holders. Bravo!


Smarty Pants said...

PC - are we related? My family tends to wander off into corners and talk about one another too. I try to keep Thumper with me as a reminder, but it doesn't always work.

I feel wholly unqualified to judge, which is why this one I'm going to be doing is my first. Like you said, who am I to say what's good and what's not?