So a few weeks ago, I got suckered asked to help judge a few contest entries for a popular online writing group. In truth, I owed the requester a favor, so I signed on. I’ve entered quite a few contests myself (and waiting on a bunch…hello? Judges? Hurry up!), but this is the first time I’ve been on the other side of the wall. And now I see why it’s such a subjective thing. If I’m stressed out, or tired, or someone cut me off in traffic, then it’s quite possible I’m not giving the writer my full attention. It doesn’t seem fair, but there it is. (And I suspect this probably is the case with agents and editors as well. Given the sheer numbers in their slush piles, an entry had damn well sparkle if it’s going to go anywhere.)

Still. The score sheets kind of bug me. We are supposed to give scores based on everything from grammar (and to judge on something I suck at seems horribly, horribly ironic. And sad.), to storyline, to characters. But what if the story doesn’t give everything away in 25 pages? It seems a little unfair for me to take 4 points off the hero simply because he’s not coming across as “likable or sympathetic” in the first chapter. Maybe the author has his/her reasons for it. Maybe the hero is a rat bastard, but gets hit on the head in Chapter 2 and becomes someone with a heart of gold. Unless there is a synopsis included as part of the entry, I can’t know. And yet, that’s how it works. Seems dreadfully unfair.

It’s been interesting so far. Out of the five entries I received, one was brilliant – great writing, good hooks, catchy characters. I loved it. Three others were good. Not as good as the first one, but decent enough that the first 25 pages held my interest. (And these are contemporaries, something I’m not usually a fan of, so kudos to the authors for that).
And one…was terrible. So terrible that it took me almost 4 days to get through those first 25 pages. The writing could only be compared to a running stream of consciousness. Different tenses, massively incorrect grammar, an utterly bizarre storyline, pages and pages of backstory that went nowhere and accomplished nothing. And I feel so bad for having to give the writer such a low score. I tried to be gentle in my comments – but honest, too. It helps no one if I just skim it on through. Better for her, perhaps, to hear it from a contest judge than from an agent. If nothing else, maybe she can find a CP or a critique group to help her.
On the other hand, the author *is* trying. Not everyone is a natural writer. Craft can be learned (and hell, aren’t we all constantly learning it??) and practiced and made better. Each word on the page is another step towards progress and whatever goal has been set.
Craft or not, she is writing. And that puts her miles ahead of the people who aren’t.
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