I l-o-v-e judging. It all started with the RITA. A box of seven books dropped on my doorstep like Christmas morning. That’s how it starts. You’re kids look at you like you dropped into negative digits on the cool scale as you tear into a box of man chests and squeal in delight as you pull out book after book. Since then, I’ve judged two batches of writing entries for a writing contest and another book contest—since January. And next year, I plan to make room in my schedule for TWO packets of RITA books. The best part: it's anonymous.
Through all the entries, I’ve gained some insight into my own writing.
1. My writing has improved.
Many of us begin with the same mistakes. Passive voice. When to semicolon, and when not colon. Thesaurus abuse. There’s a quote going around Twitter about how consulting a thesaurus means it’s the wrong word in the first place, or some bullshit like that. Sorry. I wasn’t born with a full vocabulary. While I’m proud of my regular use of facetious, I won’t learn other words if I don’t actively use them. Same with punctuation. I throw it in and my editor deletes it out. But after eight books (two unpublished) and two novellas, there are increasingly appropriate uses in my work.
When I judge, I try to gently point out areas heavy with passive voice, one dimensional characters, personalities that are inconsistent with actions, etc…Lately, I’ve taken to addressing, “He nodded,” “He laughed,” “She laughed,” “They both nodded,” “They both nodded and laughed.” While occasionally appropriate, multiple offenses drag the life of the story down. So I throw out ideas like “His lips curved into a smile,” “He nodded, a frown pulling at his lips as he contemplated her words.” Not Shakespeare, but an improvement.
2. My writing can get so much better.
I’ve accepted that the entirety of my writing career will consist of seeking improvement. Writing that’ll grab a reader and not let go, a story that haunts a reader days after they’ve finished until they feel like breaking up with the book they’ve just finished is the hardest thing to do.
A couple of my RITA books were ah-mazing. Left me wondering why the hell I can’t write like that. Because it’s not my voice. But they still prompt me to the next level in my ability. Some of the smaller writing contest entries (and I judged unpublished authors) were so stinking good, I’ve committed the name of the manuscripts to memory, hoping they don't get changed because I desperately want to read the entire book.
3. Agents don’t equate good writing. (Or good writing is subjective?)
As an indie, I often feel like agented authors are a step above me. Like they’ve passed some secret ritual proving every word they type is better than mine.
Then I had to force myself to finish a couple of RITA books. I thought the writing lacked depth and description, the characters had less dimension than Flat Stanley, and the stories were b-o-r-i-n-g. All the authors had agents, the work was traditionally published, so several people somewhere must’ve liked it.
Agents are just people. So are editors. Like writers and readers, they all have differing tastes, and I shouldn’t consider it a reflection on my writing.
4. Genre doesn’t matter if it’s a damn good story.
You can opt out of two categories for the RITA. Unfortunately, one has to be the one you entered. Goodbye paranormal, my reading mainstay. I cut out inspirational because it’s too tame for my liking. Unfortunately, that allowed historical romance to show up in my packet. Not just one, but two. Not short historical, but looooong.
My personal reading tastes have no room for corsets, or intrigue in the ton, or dainty women who rebel against the times. Still, I had to read them. One of them I gutted through, the story quickly losing my attention. But the other…deadbeat mom mode. When I finished, I went to the library to get the other two books in the series. I’m surprised the author didn’t final, because she should’ve, imo.
5. POV doesn’t matter if it’s a damn good story.
I write in third person; it’s how I prefer to read. My inner groan resounds when I open a book and I see first person POV. I don’t know why, just that I like the feel of third person (and it’s getting hard to come by).
One of the books I judged was in first person and it was the dude’s POV. I was dubious to say the least. But hey, I like writing dude’s more than female characters so I tried to be optimistic. And it turned out to be another book I was surprised didn’t final. Shit was seriously good. Another writing contest entry was in first person with the feel of third person. I studied her work to see how she did it. She stayed away from the I, I, I, that is prevalent, because duh, first (but it can be overdone). Her work was so descriptive, so vibrant, the story so much richer because she skipped the “I saw,” “I felt,” “I was.” She wrote the world interacting with the character in a way I’ve never read.
As a side note: one of the comments on my contest entry said, “your third person reads like a first person POV, which is a good thing.” Huh.
I’d love to continue judging, with my goal to not be the dick judge that keeps an entrant up at night with her comments. I’ve learned a lot from entering contests, and I learn just as much judging. I’ve come so far that I dread seeing my own RITA scores from books that were written over a year ago. I only entered because I wanted to know where I sat in the crowd. Now, I have an awesome critique group and may back off some of my contest entries. But as for judging, it’s game on.