Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Confessions of a Contest Judge: Learning from the Mistakes and Triumphs of Others

Have you ever judged a writing contest?

There are a variety out there for writers at all stages of the game: from published to newbie. Entering contests and receiving feedback with grace and using it to improve your writing further is of inestimable value. But today I'm talking about the behind the curtain view.

I have judged American Christian Fiction Writers' (ACFW) Carol awards for the past three years. This year I have participated as a judge and also as an assistant to the Carol Awards Coordinator (Go Alley Cat Casey!). Both have been valuable experiences. Each year I've learned something new both about the industry and about my own writing.

Here are five reasons to jump on the opportunity to judge a contest:

1) Judging can be an inside track to the pulse of the industry.

Evaluating in your category can be an excellent way to answer questions such as:

Do particular eras dominate historical fiction right now?

Some heavy hitters for 2014 are World War I and World War II because of current events and anniversaries of crucial dates during these wars.

What changes have been made in the past year?

As we know last year saw MANY changes, including the conglomerations of publishing companies and the closing of B&H fiction line. What changes will come with 2014?

Over the past few years, it's no secret we're seeing a new side of Amish fiction. Still valued for its simplicity, the genre has tackled new time periods (the beginning of the Mennonite church, the Vietnam war), life issues (infertility, infidelity, etc) and even ventured into space. If you are a writer of Amish fiction, you will want to know about these new directions. What better way than digging into recent releases?

Although these books are last year's releases, it still provides a valuable picture of the state of the market. You don't want to follow fads of the market, but rather watch and see what changes are enduring, so judging recent (though not brand new) releases is a great way to do so.

2) Evaluating other books can help you grow in your own fiction.

There are some fantastic reads out there. \Learn from the examples of great authors in your field. Watch the way they write descriptions. Attempt to increase the realism of your own dialogue with others example.

The best books are the best teachers.

Some contests such as the Carol awards have a single number rating for the purpose of evaluation. Others such as the Frasier use a categorized rubric. When I received back my evaluation sheet from the Frasier, I found it was an excellent self-evaluation tool for some of my other writing. What a great way to find your own strengths and weaknesses in a more objective fashion.

Looking at why you rated a book or story the way you did is valuable. Were the characters not compelling? Did their motivations lack credibility? Did the plot progression make logical sense? Was there well-written description or overwriting?

Become a detective. How would you rate your story?

3) Expanding your reading horizons opens up your mind to new ideas.

I like to choose to evaluate books in at least one category that is very different from my own writing genre. I have read historical and suspense, yet I have never completed a manuscript in either of these categories (have started several in each however I'm embarassed to admit).

Reading suspense books has taught me to write tighter and ratchet up the tension. The authors who keep us up at night have plenty to teach us about giving our own readers sleepless nights no matter what our genre might be.

Travis Thrasher sometimes ends his chapters mid-sentence. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with his young adult Solitary Tales series (not a typical category for me). Once I saw how well he did it, I HAD to try this technique in my own writing just for fun.\

Writing description is not my strong suit, but by reading historical I learn that every detail matters. From describing a Revolutionary-era meal to adding the perfect period attire, Laura Frantz is a master in helping the reader to picture every tiny detail. Her books come alive as a result and its no surprise that she has been nominated for several industry awards.

I've discovered books I didn't even know existed through judging.Sometimes small publishers put out stellar work that is not always on the radar of online media. In other cases, I began to understand why the book did not receive press.

4) You are helping the industry and its key organizations.

Organizations such as ACFW thrive on volunteer activity. I have been a member for several years now and have found it worth at least double the membership fee. Helping with contests as a judge is a great way to pay it forward.

In the few years I've been writing, many authors have come alongside me to encourage, support, and give feedback that is both valuable and valid. Without this help I would no longer be writing. Through the loops run by ACFW I also received new opportunities to review and to write articles.

By judging a contest you can help authors receive recognition. And sometimes you can provide the right word of kind criticism that leads to a better manuscript for another writer. My writing has been changed by contest judges, oftentimes the very feedback I at first thought was too harsh was exactly what I needed to hear to grow. I'm grateful for these words of criticism.

There can be NO growth without accepting and internalizing valid criticism (and almost ALL of it is valid).

5) It is thrilling to watch awards ceremonies or see a list of finalists and know your feedback was taken into consideration.

It is wonderful to hear someone's name called and a squeal of delight as they make their way to the front of the room to give an acceptance speech.

Its even better when you had a part in the process. You feel as though you have somehow helped in the discovery of a new talent.

Have you judged a contest this year or in the past? Which one? Did you find it to be a valuable experience? What did you learn?\

Next time I'll springboard on this to share how to be a stronger judge of other's fiction (whether it be your critique partner or as a judge). 

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reviewing and writing for Library Journal and the blog Wonderfully Woven.


Jeanne Takenaka said...

You bring up some great points, Julia. I haven't judged any contests yet, but I'm sure that time for me to do this will come. :)

Thanks for giving a bigger picture on the value of judging writing contests!

Henya said...

Thanks for this great post. I learned a lot. And how do you go about becoming a judge?

Julia M. Reffner said...


Well...I'm going to mention that to a certain person who looks for judges who lives close by to you...just kidding :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Watch the ACFW loops for information on judging. Certain contests have different qualifications. Depending on where you are in your writing journey that is something to take into consideration.

Casey said...

Where was this post when I was begging for judges?? LOL! Great post, Julia. I completely agree and conquer with your points, especially when it comes to evaluating the market and what is hot and not so hot right now. Maybe this will prompt some final round judges. I only need about 6 more. ;-)

Julia M. Reffner said...

LOL, haha, Case :). It has been a valuable experience for me and definitely worth the time I've put in. Hope you get more judges :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Very enlightening, Jules! Great stuff!!!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I must admit, I have learned so much by judging for the contests. I am forced to give reasons why I think this way or that, I try to provide resources and links to issues I've marked and ALWAYS give as many kudos as I can--because we all need kudos no matter where we are on our writing journey.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Thanks, AMY.

MARY, Isn't that so great in our own journey when judges provide resources to help us out. So true that there's always something we can encourage on.