Monday, April 25, 2005

Judging contests . . . or not

Last week I received another e-mail asking me to judge a writing contest. As always, I declined.

I don't judge writing contests. I can't judge writing contests.

I am mildly dyslexic, wildly impatient, and I have the attention span of a six-year-old the day before Christmas. Trust me, you do not want me reading your manuscript or your book and assigning it a score.

I would make a very poor contest judge, even if I tried hard. But here's the thing: I am not going to try. I can't think of any reason why I should. I have better things to do with my time than force myself to read, all in the name of fairness, books that do not fully engage my interest.

This attitude shocks most of the romance novelists I hang with. I have been accused (even by my friends, who say it nicely, but who still say it) of having an unprofessional attitude. But come on. My publisher doesn't give a flip whether I judge writing contests or not. So don't tell me that judging contests was part of the deal when I became a romance novelist. Judging contests is not the mark of a "professional" romance novelist any more than wearing a pink feather boa is.

And please don't tell me that if a writer enters Romance Writers of America's RITA contest (which I did last year) she is obligated to judge a couple of categories. Authors pay money to enter that contest; the entry form says nothing about promising to judge. If it did, I wouldn't have entered (I'm all for giving judges a break on their entry fees, however; that seems fair).

Yes, I can hear some of you now: "It's a moral obligation." Well, sorry, but I don't base my morals on public opinion, and I'm getting really tired of hearing other romance novelists drop heavy hints about things that are Done or Not Done in This Community. Girls, this is not high school, and I don't have to join the club and wear the sweater if I don't want to. Also, I'd like to point out that while only RWA members may judge the RITA contest, one need not be an RWA member to enter it. Bearing that in mind, doesn't that whole "moral obligation" argument begin to sound a little silly?

And please don't suggest--unless you want to hear me laugh--that I should judge contests because I owe something to the genre. The genre has done nothing for me. What success I've had in writing romance, I owe not to some nebulous concept of "the genre" but to the grace of God.

One of the ways I express my gratitude to Him is by offering encouragment to my fellow writers. That's part of what this blog is about. And in addition to having posted pages and pages of specific writing tips on my website, I have been active in several online writers' communities over the past three years, especially this one. Also, anyone who e-mails me with a question or comment will always get a quick, personal response.

I'm doing what I like to do and what I'm good at, helping other writers in my own small ways. I'm not particularly interested in whether the scorekeepers in the romance-writing community think I'm doing enough or doing the right things. I would like to believe that all contest judges are people who enjoy judging and who are good at it, but I often wonder how many have simply caved under pressure from their peers to "do their part".

I'm always flattered when someone values my opinion enough to ask me to critique a manuscript or judge a published book. But I'm afraid I must decline all offers to ride on the contest-judges' bandwagon.

Thanks for understanding. Even if you don't.


For the next few days, this page will be getting hundreds of clicks because Romance Writer's of America's e-mail newsletter is linking here. I'd like to point out that my post is now almost four years old, and while my sentiments about judging contests have not changed a bit, I have for the past three years judged RWA's RITA contest. That's because I've been entering my own books, and any RWA member who enters and who does not volunteer to judge other categories of the contest risks having her own books tossed out if too few judges sign up. In that sense, many RITA judges have not volunteered for the job. They have been coerced.


Anonymous said...

You Go Girl!

Robyn said...

Brenda, I'm beginning to agree with you. Right now I'm judging a contest, and I'm not a published author- this is a reader's forum. Now I'm wondering why I ever thought it would be a good idea to get 4 free books, only 2 of which interest me. I feel obligated to at least finish the book I'm currently slogging through, but I'd really rather give it to Goodwill. I may never enter contests myself, after this.

tristan coulter said...

How Ayn Rand of you!

You go, you objectivist mother of mine!

Heather Diane Tipton said...

Personally, I prefer authors that do what you do. You are one of the most helpful authors I know.
Yeah, there needs to be judges too but there are people that love doing that sorta thing. Let them do it.

Mildly dyslexic? I've never heard anyone but me use that term. I always say that is what I am and people think I'm nuts.

Robin Bayne said...

I stopped judging unpublished contests quite a while ago, after attending a workshop at an RWA conference and hearing from a half dozen authors who used to be contest judges. One had been seriously stalked after giving a low score to a wannabe writer, another still wrapped in a lawsuit for "damaging" a potential writing career with low contest scores. All their stories were similar--and since then I have only judged contests for published books.

After all, I can't hurt their chances of being published at that point.

Karen said...

I agree with you Brenda you shouldnt be expected to judge any contest if that is not your hearts desire. I am a little concerned though after reading some of the comments of what I am getting myself into as I did agree to be a judge for a contest. Being sued because you gave an opinion one of I am sure many is a little ridiculous as Robin. Yes Brenda you are right everyone needs to grow up and just be happy with who they are and continue to do what they do best.

Karen said...

Sorry I didn't proofread my comments before sending.

Chris said...

You sicken me.

No, wait ... that was the potato salad I had at lunch.

Stop by my site and razz me sometime, huh?

Have a great week.


Camy Tang said...

Brenda, I didn't even realize there was that sort of pressure to judge contests. That's good to know.

I agree with not wanting to finish books I dislike. Why bother? Waste of my precious reading time.

Wow, Robin Bayne's comments are an eyeopener.

Honest, B, I think that your involvement in these writers groups and stuff is much better. People seek you out and are more open to what you have to say. Who wants to give advice to someone who isn't listening?

Brenda Coulter said...

I appreciate all of your comments. I just want to make clear that I admire contest judges who take the job seriously and give it their best. And I'd like to be flattered by your comments, Heather and Camy, but my little contributions aren't more valuable than those others make--they're just what I feel able to do. I think it's great that we all have different talents and abilities to share.

I have heard only whisperings of horror stories like the ones Robin B. mentioned, nothing concrete, so I won't speak to that. But it wasn't my intention to discourage any of you from judging contests. I meant only to deplore the herd mentality that says "professional" writers must behave this way or that way and make these contributions to the genre.

Note to Chris--potato salad is almost always a bad idea.

Beth White said...

You get an amen from me. I'd rather spend my valuable critique time on people who ask me specifically to critique their work. People I know, not total strangers. Then, if I have to make less than encouraging comments, I can quantify them in person. And I don't critique for just anybody. I listen for the Holy Spirit to direct me toward someone He wants me to mentor. As far as general information for beginning writers goes, there are plenty of good craft books already out well as informative websites put together by people who enjoy that sort of thing (which, um, would not be me).

Beth White
Under Cover of Darkness, LI Suspense, July 05

Leah said...

You said, "Also, anyone who e-mails me with a question or comment will always get a quick, personal response."
Well, that just simply IS NOT true. I've e-mailed you twice in the past and never received a reply from you AT ALL.
Apparently, you only respond to the "I just read your book and love it" e-mails.

Brenda Coulter said...

Leah, have you considered that your messages might have gone into my spam folder for some reason?

If you want to try resending your message, leave another note here when you've done it and I'll go check my spam folder.

As for your assertion that I answer only "fan" e-mails, you couldn't be more wrong. In fact I spend a great deal of time answering cranky e-mails--and rude comments made here on this blog.

Anonymous said...

(There was a link to this post in RWA's e-notes, by the way! Which is why my comment here is coming in so far after the fact...)

Brenda, I certainly can respect your stance that, as you don't think you'd be an effective contest judge, you won't be one. That certainly makes sense!

I would just say, as far as the Rita goes, the entry fee does not go to the judges -- it goes for administration, paperwork, postage, etc etc. So there were five volunteer judges who judged your Rita entry... I suspect that's the "moral obligation" that some may have hinted to you about -- that many entrants feel that it's only fair for you to "do your share" as far as the Rita goes, because you did enter.

Of course, there are many other ways to give service to RWA! And that's something that people often forget.

Anyway, that's my take on it, for what it's worth... :-)

JulieLeto said...

Brenda, I judge...but I TOTALLY RESPECT your decision not to. Don't let the haters get you down. Judging isn't for everyone.

I'm the Judges Coordinator for my chapter's contest and have been for years. We have some super-talented authors who are not allowed to judge because, honestly, they're not good at it. They are fabulous writers and giving individuals, but judging a writer's contest is not their thing.

Just like I can't do math. We all have our strengths.

I don't like that you're "forced" to judge the RITA because that's not going to put you in a good mood when you're reading what might be my book, LOL!

Brenda Coulter said...

...that's not going to put you in a good mood when you're reading what might be my book, LOL!

[Chuckle.] Well, I really do try not to take my impatience out on the authors. In fact, my scores might be a little inflated because I'm so afraid of being unfair!

Here's a funny thing: After signing up to judge this time, I decided not to enter my eligible book in this year's contest. So I'm judging "for nothing."