Friday, October 19, 2012

Contest Judges Pay it Forward and Are Rewarded

In my last post, I talked about why aspiring authors would enter contests.  In this post, I am talking about why published authors would spend their valuable writing time judging a contest.

RWA Chapters around the world run a variety of contests. Most of them do this for two reasons: 1) to raise money for their chapter in order to provide better workshops, retreats, speakers; and 2) to provide a mechanisms to mentor writers, both in and outside of their chapter, in their craft and career. All chapters have published and unpublished writers as part of their membership.  All chapters tend to struggle with keeping their published writers involved, and particularly with getting them to judge contests.

There are many reasons for this, but the primary reason is that once published the writer has different time constraints. She now has deadlines she must meet. Frequently, she is writing her next book while promoting the previous one. Where before being published, the writer had the ability to rearrange her schedule and let a deadline slip a week or two or decide not to keep up with her blog for a month, now her career and possible future book's success depend on her being disciplined and on time.  This makes many published writers decline to participate in judging.

I always participate in judging at least my chapter's Golden Rose contest. I frequently also judge either the Rita or the Golden Heart for RWA, and on occasion judge for another chapter's contest.  I have the same restraints on my time as other writers do, but I've made a determination that what I get from judging is worth my time commitment.

Craft Reminders.  No matter how much I write or how much better I get with each book, I know I'm not perfect and I always have room for improvement. By judging other manuscripts, I am reminded of all those niggly craft items that make a great book: structure, scene and sequel, character development, description that moves the story forward, tension, body language, dialog, emotion, and many others. Each book is different. Though there are things most beginning writers get wrong, there are also things that advanced writers forget--myself included--or don't focus on.  Also, whenever I judge an amazingly crafted manuscript (and I have seen many), it also gives me that little kick-in-the-butt that says "The competition is fierce. Buckle down and make your next book better."

Genre Trends.  The more I'm focusing on writing, the less opportunity I have to read.  Even though I read about 100 novels a year, it is never enough.  Also, most of those books were written two to four years ago (sometimes more) and so not reflective of what is going to be published next year or in two years.  By judging contests I'm seeing what is popular right now, what stories are intriguing up and coming writers, and how much genre-bending or cross-genre writing is occurring. This is exciting to me.  Even if I'm judging a novel that has significant craft problems, almost always the premise is interesting and unique.  It fires my imagination to see these unique premises. It helps me to think outside of whatever boxes I've created for myself.

Mentoring.  It is rare, if ever, that a published author made it on her own.  I know I was mentored by lots of people. I was mentored by contest judges, by critique partners, by workshop leaders, and by other published authors.  It is only right to pay it forward.

As a writer advances in her craft and her career, she needs mentoring again and again.  One can only take in and apply so much information. When I started out, there were probably at least 15 things I could improve.  My brain could only handle working on about three of them.  Once I got those down, I needed reminding about the other 12 and again chose three or four I could handle working on.  Even as a published author I still need mentoring on craft and business.  I suspect it never ends.  Mentoring is at the core of RWA's bylaws and our chapter.

Rewards Outweigh Time Lost. For me, the rewards mentioned above outweigh the time expended to judge a contest or two.  Not only do I get extrinsic rewards through important reminders to improve my own work, but I also know I've touched and I hope helped at least 12 or more writers who are struggling to get their first novel published. That intrinsic reward makes it the most worthwhile for me. When I see a manuscript I judged become published, I take special pride in that. Maybe something I said made a difference. Maybe some note of encouragement

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