Elizabeth: Learning by Judging

judging-youElizabeth here, filling in for Kat today.

Like several of the other 8 Ladies I have been spending time recently judging contest entries. The process was an interesting one. The stories I judged were paranormal romances so it gave me the opportunity to read things I wouldn’t normally have chosen. It was also helpful from a writer’s perspective. Problems I might not have seen in my own work were easier to identify in someone else’s story.

After making it through the twelve entries I had to judge, I noticed a number of recurring issues that pulled me out of the stories as I was reading them. So, for those of you planning to enter any writing contests in the future (or planning to submit your work to an agent or editor), here are some suggestions to consider before you hit that “submit” button:


Take the time to proofread and edit your manuscript with an eagle-eye (or have someone do it for you). Grammar mistakes, missing words, misspellings and the like can be very distracting. You want your reader enthralled by your story, not being pulled out periodically to try and guess what you meant to say. Also, familiarize yourself with standard manuscript formatting. You want your reader focused on your story, not your quirky font or the fact that you randomly indent your paragraphs or alternate your line spacing.

Follow the rules

This probably seems like a no-brainer, but make sure what you are submitting matches what is being requested. If you are submitting to a contest that requires “the love story to be the main focus” of your book, then make sure your story has a love story as its main focus. If it doesn’t your entry will wind up rejected and you’ll just be disappointed. Double-checking to make sure you’ve followed the number of pages / number of words limits is a good idea too. No one wants to have a story rejected right out of the gate because of a technicality.

Start at the right place                                                          

Starting in the right place is something we spent a great deal of time on during the McDaniel program. If the place where your main character’s life changes doesn’t occur until Chapter 2 or 3 then you run the risk of losing your reader before your story really gets going. Though I don’t mind prologues (I love the one in my favourite book, Lord of Scoundrels), they generally seem to provide information that isn’t really necessary for the current story or contain a chunk of back-story that could be more effectively woven throughout the story.

Sometimes, less is better

Although I’m a big fan of words, if you constantly use twenty when two or three would do, then I’m going to start skimming.  Just saying.


This was probably my biggest take-away from my judging efforts. The synopsis is not the brief teaser on the back cover of a book, it is the way you prove that you can plot out a story. It doesn’t need to contain everything that happens, but it should at least address the main turning points / plot points. If your story is a romance, then the synopsis should clearly indicate how the romance progresses. There is no way for a judge (agent/editor) to know if the resolution of the romance is going to be emotionally satisfying if you don’t give any indication in your synopsis of how it will progress through the story. Your synopsis should also accurately correspond to the chapters you’ve submitted, rather than sounding like it is talking about a completely different story. If your story contains zombies or vampires or aliens, I should have a clue about that from the initial chapters, I shouldn’t be hearing about them for the first time in the synopsis or I’m likely to be annoyed.

So, what other suggestions do you have to add to the list?

19 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Learning by Judging

  1. Wow, those are great suggestions, Elizabeth. I had one entry (also paranormal) that was 1) formatted incorrectly (single space, not double, which I’ve since found out is an immediate disqual), 2) NOT a romance (even after reading the synopsis I couldn’t find the romance), and 3) a bunch of sittin’ and talkin’. I mean PAGES AND PAGES of it. Horrible. Simply horrible.

    All of the things you mentioned above should be ticked off by each entrant BEFORE they submit. I recently asked Jeanne and Nancy to read my first few chapters and they both said that in my very first chapter, Susannah seemed bipolar and Nate was a stalker. It was fair criticism, but I couldn’t figure out why until Jeanne pointed out that I had no real conflict in that first scene…just a bunch of sexual tension that I was trying to dress up as conflict (I just finished a rewrite on it, so hopefully the conflict is real now and the sexual tension a bi-product of it).

    Based on this, the piece of advice I would add is make sure your GMC is clear up front. I shouldn’t have to read the synopsis to figure out what your characters want and what the conflict is. Clue us in quickly and you’ll hook us. We won’t be able to put your story down.

    • Justine, I feel like I may have read that same entry – I certainly saw those same problems. You are right on target about the GMC. In some cases, I had real trouble determining what the goal of the main character was in the story/synopsis, plus the characters were just reacting to things, not making things happen. Possibly why it was so easy to put the stories down.

    • Justine – I’m laughing at the thought of Susannah seeming bipolar and Nate a stalker – was that the same version I read?

      I’m also interested to know if any of you read competition entries that you loved, or were they all flawed in different ways?

      • Rachel – I read one entry that I would have continued reading if I had the whole manuscript, instead of just a few chapters. It had some flaws, but they were the kind of things that a good editor could help work out. The story really stood out from the other eleven I read.

      • i’m not done reading all of mine (hello weekend), but aside from the one that was just terrible, the rest have been meh.

        I tweeted yesterday that when one person says something about your MS it’s an opinion, but when two people say it, it’s a problem. I’m pretty sure they read the same version of the first scene as you (there’s more coming your way, BTW, but not quite yet…I want to give you a big chunk so you can tell me whether the entire first act flows) and I think Jeanne hit the nail on the head about the missing conflict. My critique partner gave me some good feedback this morning, too (her complaint all along is that Susannah seems underdeveloped, whereas it’s clear I know who Nate is). So I’ll tweak it some more and see where that gets me.

      • I read one entry that I absolutely loved. It was fabulous. If the book had been available, I would have bought it there and then, and probably anything else the author had written too.

        • Interesting how few you all really liked -easy to see how agents reject so many. For some reason I also find it encouraging that there were gems to be found. Will you ever know if the ones you like make the final?

        • Rachel, they will post the titles of the finalists, so I’ll be able to see how my entries wound up. I don’t know the authors though, so if they ever make it to publication, I will only know if the titles don’t change.

        • Easy now to see how agents reject so many and also how time-consuming it is to write up constructive feedback. No wonder they send form rejections!

  2. Amen especially to the point about the synopsis! All are good points, but if you write something like “together, they discover the glory of love”, it sounds like you haven’t written the rest of the book, and don’t know what’s going to happen. Concrete specifics, please. (If you haven’t actually written the book, MAKE SOMETHING UP. As a writer, you reserve the right to Have a Better Idea later. IMO, at least. If it makes it to an editor or agent, level with them — but by the time it gets that far, you’ll have a better idea about what the book is about.)

    The other thing, which kind of fits in with “start in the right place”, is make sure something happens within the first three paragraphs. Something important, and something with conflict. This is a lesson I’m going to have problems applying to my own manuscript, but I think I’ve learned why it’s important (-:.

    • Seconded on the “something happens” point. If the first few pages are all setting and internal monologue, my attention is going to wander. As you said though, fixing that is easier said than done. My manuscript keeps shrinking as I find bits and pieces that don’t really need to be there.

  3. Everything everyone said, and so many more things. Judging took time, but my goodness, it was an eye-opener. Many of the problems I saw, I’ve received comments about from judges or beta readers. I thought I understood at the time, but I really get it now.

    Especially – get your H&H on the page (or at least well-foreshadowed) quickly. I read several entries where one or other did not make an appearance, let alone meet. It was impossible to get any idea of how the romance might develop.

    And make sure the first scene is a clear promise of what to expect in the rest of the book. I read one story that had a really intriguing first scene. The rest of the pages I read flowed from that (not quite so intriguingly), but when I read the synopsis, I felt as though I’d strayed into a different book. The story went off in an entirely different direction that had almost nothing to do with the beginning. If I’d bought that book, I’d have felt cheated.

    • Getting my H&H on the page, and demonstrating the tension between them, is where I”m struggling right now. I have to keep in mind the promise to the reader. I seem to forget that a lot.

      • I should clarify…getting them on the page in a plausible way and with REAL conflict and demonstrating the tension between them is where I’m struggling!

    • Jilly – yes to getting the H&H on the page or at least foreshadowed. At least one of the entries left me wondering exactly who the hero was, and that was even after I read the synopsis. Agreed on the promise of the book as well. That was the problem I had when the initial pages and the synopsis seemed to be talking about 2 different things. I’d have been very disappointed to read the entire story, based on the initial pages, if it suddenly took a turn in a completely different direction, like the synopsis seemed to indicate it would

  4. There used to be a panel at RWA with Irene Goodman, Lucia Macro, and Miriam Krisss, who would read out loud the first few pages of the manuscripts that people submitted on the spot, and without revealing titles or writers’ names, would give their opinions right there—if they’d reject or ask for more. So on the lucky side, if they said, “Whoever wrote this, send it to me,” YAY! But I think it was devastating for a lot of people, even though they weren’t mean about it. They rejected one book on the first sentence, and they rejected many, many, many manuscripts on the first paragraph. If they went to a full page, they almost always asked for more, or at least debated among themselves about what was good or holding them back. I sat in that room for two hours, and between them, they requested maybe three or four manuscripts, and they went through at least 100. Extremely eye-opening. And formatting didn’t even come into it.

    • Kay – that would be so hard to be in the crowd if they were reading your manuscript. Even if the feedback they gave was constructive and helpful, that would still be hard. A really good learning experience, I would think though, especially if you were just an observer.

  5. I’ve never done any contest judging, but my local chapter has a contest coming up later this year. This sounds like a valuable learning experience, so I think I’ll volunteer.

  6. Pingback: Justine: The GMC, Ma’am, Just the GMC | Eight Ladies Writing

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