Back in December, I wrote a blog about contests. (You will have to scroll down to the Dec. 9 entry, because apparently, Blogger won't let me link to individual posts in my archive.) In this blogpost, I talked about whether entering or winning contests could get you published. (Nope- but it can do other things.) Now, I feel the need to talk about other elements of these contests for unpublished writers.
See, RWA has a ton of 'em. Seems like every chapter of the organization has a contest. I may be exaggerating, but not by a hell of a lot. There are other contests out there, run by other local writers' organizations, which tend to have different rules, but I'm most familiar with the RWA contests, because over the years I've entered, and judged, a lot of them. Usually, these contests have three judges, who are given a scoresheet with numeric scores, which can add up to over 100 points. (There are often posts on various loops begging for additional judges, because of this multiple-judge rule.) The scoresheets have places (usually too small) for comments, and judges are usually encouraged to write on the manuscript. (I tend to write a lot, because I'm wordy.)
And invariably, when entrants receive their scoresheets and manuscripts back (whether electronic or hard copy), the score analysis--and often the moaning--begins. Contest entrants want to learn from these contests. They want to understand the scores. And often, when they receive a 90, a 97 and a 51 as their scores, they are confused.
The thing is--writing contests are judged by human beings and no two human beings think the same way. In fact, often, the same human being will think differently on two different occasions. Also, numeric scores are tough to calibrate, especially when relating them to things that aren't numbers. One person's 5 might be someone else's 3, and vice versa.
Most people agree that if only one person dings you for a particular flaw, you may not actually have that problem in your writing. However, if two or more people comment on it--you'd probably better take a closer look.
And here's another thing to think about. This is just My opinion, of course, but I'd rather have a story that people either loved or hated than a story they felt lukewarm about. This is another reason some contest entries can have a wide spread in the scores. If it's different, some people will love it, and some won't, and they can be vehement about that love or hate.
So--contest scoresheets and comments should be taken carefully, with a fair bit of salt, and even more time to get them down. This is when it becomes gut-check time. 'Cause really--you know in your gut if the comments are right. Really. You do. Those are usually the ones that cause the biggest denial, the biggest defensiveness. If the comments are way off and don't suit your story at all, those comments you can laugh at. It's actually possible to laugh. The ones that are true--those are the ones that pinch. They hurt, because you know they're right.
So are you going to get all defensive and post an ugly rant about how the judges don't know what they're doing, etc., etc.? Or are you going to cowboy up and do the work?
Yeah, I know sometimes it feels like the judge is taking your story apart and making it into something that's not really yours. But is she/he really? Is it a fundamental change in what your story is about--or is she just trying to get you to cut off the fish head?
("Fish head" is a term from Britta Coleman, author of Potter Springs. Just as, when you cooking a whole fish for your guests you need to cut off the head and set it aside (because those grandkids won't eat anything that looks at them) you need to cut the fish head off your story in order to serve it properly. The fish needed it to get around before it made it to your kitchen. The story probably needed it to get written--but you don't need it now. Cut that sucker off. It's done. Start the story on the day that's different.)
And stop obsessing about scoresheets. Think of it as practice for submitting your manuscript to an agent or editor. They're people too. Some of them will like your story, and some of them won't. If you're very lucky, some of them will make comments about things you could do to improve it. Most of them will just send a polite "No thanks." That's when you pull up your big girl panties and deal.
Don't get mad. Get even. Write a better book and sell that one.