Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Are Those Pesky Judges Thinking?

I wanted to share some things I’ve learned from participating in both sides of the contest circuit. As you know, there are some great writing contests out there. This is the way many chapters earn funds to provide members with speakers and workshops throughout the year.

I have been fortunate enough to final in some of these contests and I have also paid my dues by judging quite a few. I have taken the RWA judges training both in person with a local chapter and through another group that offered it online.

First of all, let me say that putting on a contest is a great big deal. There are coordinators for the various categories. There are judges and final judges to be committed and the logistics for all this is an exercise in chaos. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of all the wonderful volunteers, everything pulls together and the chaos becomes beautifully orchestrated music. At the end, the exhausted volunteers sit down, raise a glass and vow that next year will be even better.

There are so many contests, how do you choose which to enter? The cost of entering most contests generally runs between $25 to $30. Most of us don’t have an unlimited contest budget and must choose where to invest our fees. For me, it’s all about the final judges. Go to the contest site and scroll down to the place where the final judges are listed. If you are lucky enough to final, your work will be read by one or more of these people. You get a double dividend when there is both an agent judge and an editor judge. If the judge is an editor, look at their publishing house to see if they publish what you write. If the judge is an agent, check them out at agentquery.com to see if they represent work similar to yours. There are also contests that offer cash prizes for the winners and finalists. Money is always nice.

The essential element for serious contesters is having a polished and completed novel that is ready for submission. Don’t send the first draft or a work in progress. Before even thinking about entering contests you must first finish the book. Then you have to follow the contest rules as to what format and how many pages to submit. Thankfully, most contests are online and you can save all that ink and paper and standing in line at the P.O. to mail it.

Another great benefit of entering contests is for the judge’s feedback. If you don’t final, you will hopefully receive not only your scores, but individual feedback from 2-3 first round judges. Admittedly, there are some judges who just won’t “get” your work or will write idiotic comments to the effect that they don’t ever read your genre, which becomes obvious when you check the scores. If you get this kind of judge, please tell the contest coordinator who will be less likely to invite this person to judge their next contest. For the most part, the feedback will be helpful. The judge is a reader and they are reacting like a reader so take their comments objectively and use what makes sense to you. I would always suggest that you polish your first 35 pages to a high sheen before you consider entering contests. You can do this by careful editing on your own and by running it by your critique group and/or beta readers who will give you honest feedback. No, your mom doesn’t count.

You must try to present something that is contest worthy. When I judge an entry, I always read it twice. The first time, I read it as a reader and the second time as a judge. It’s easy to pick up on typos or grammatical errors but more important to look at the content. As a judge, I am always aware that this entrant has paid a fee and put their heart into their work. I feel that the least I owe them is a thorough evaluation and feedback to help them polish it. Most of the entries I receive are really good stories that have been well developed. When I read something that just isn’t working, it’s usually one of three things:

1. The story doesn’t start in the right place. The writer has spent several pages of blah-blah-blah which has failed to engage me. I really don’t care if she walked down the stairs and straightened her apron on the first page unless something huge happens to jerk her out of that safe little world on that same page. The greatest gift I can give these writers is to highlight the area where the story actually starts and give them some feedback about this.

2. There is a ton of back story that dulls down the story, slows the pace and makes my eyes roll up in my head. I know it’s important and it adds to the character and motivation, but don’t dump it all up front. Dribble it in as you go along. Tease me. It is most important for something to happen in the first few pages to hook the reader. This is called the “inciting incident”. If nothing is happening, why am I reading it? This also goes for copious shovelfuls of setting. Give me enough setting so I can tell where we are and other important things such as, is it midnight or rush hour? Are we in a hospital room or slogging across the dessert and then please, make something happen.

3. Too many characters are introduced and it’s hard to keep track of them. Particularly in paranormal, some writers tend to toss half a dozen characters on page one and they all have unpronounceable names and I can’t keep them straight. I am kind of picky about names in that they should at least fit the character. Think of Rumplestiltskin. I offended one of my critique partners when I didn’t care for the name of her hero, because it made me picture Rumplestiltskin instead of Brad Pitt or Antonio Banderas. It all speaks to characterization. It’s also a problem is you have Carol and Cassie and Caitlin interacting. Please help the reader keep them straight.

The characteristics of a good entry are the same as the characteristics of any good fiction. Unique voice, strong characters, complex plot, natural dialogue, setting, introspection, conflict, motivation, etc… Try to start and end each scene with a strong hook because one of the frequent questions on a score sheet is, do you want to read more?

If you do get that exciting call or email announcing that you finaled in a contest, celebrate large. Call your friends. Post on your local writing loops. Do a virtual happy dance on your FaceBook page, Tweet, etc. . . And then cross your fingers because your entry will now go on to be read by the final judge(s) and you may garner a coveted request for a full or partial of your manuscript. Good luck to all entrants. I hope your future holds many finals.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Yeah, I'm a sucker for a happy ending. I love it when, no matter what kind of strife they've endured, the hero and heroine join hands and stroll off into the sunset together. You close the book with a feeling of satisfaction. You gather your things and leave the theater. Being a writer, my only question is, then what?
What happens when the unlikely hero drops his socks beside the bed and leaves his smelly sneakers to perfume the air? What happens when the pert heroine smears on the exfoliating masque and touches up her roots? Dang that reality anyway!
Fortunately, as writers we don't have to turn that page. We don't have to wonder if the dashing hero will let his granite-hard six-pack abs slide into a paunch. We do not have to see the perky heroine's sky blue eyes develop laugh lines and then crow's feet. We just have to get them to a satisfactory ending where the reader can put down the book with a sigh, content that Rex and Sheila will indeed have a happily ever after.
What constitutes a happy ending? From my perspective it's when the conflicts have been overcome; when the main characters goals have been reached or have been exchanged for a shared goal; when evil has been punished and danger extinguished.
In life, we have to take our happiness on a moment-by-moment basis for life is too fleeting. We have to celebrate each victory and enjoy the small events that make life worth living. Please hug someone you love today and remember to cherish each moment. Don't look beyone the curtain. Just savor today.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Participating in a critique group for the first time is like taking your clothes off in public. You feel exposed and vulnerable. I have been a part of the same group for many years and cherish the members. Receiving honest, insightful feedback on my writing is essential to the process. But not all criticism is equal or productive. Let me share some tips on critique partners or groups.

The goal of critique should always be the same: To politely offer feedback with the goal of improving the body of work under consideration; To offer praise for the aspects that deserve it, and point out areas that need work.

Above all, the critique group should fit you. First, decide if you need to meet face-to-face or online. Do you need a single critique partner or a group? Do you plan to meet weekly, bi-monthly? You need to find something you can commit to because the longer you critique together, the better you will become as critters.

Critique Group Etiquette:

1) Be kind

2) Do your homework: Take writing classes; Review online articles.

3) Be objective: Use writerly criteria.

4) Do not "defend" or explain your work. If the reader didn't "get it" perhaps you should re-writing it stronger. If you receive negative comments, say thank you.

5) Take turns. Listen politely while your work is being reviewed.

6) Listen politely while someone else's work is being read and make well thought out, constructive comments. Never make negative comments in an unkind manner.

7) Remember to comment on elements you like.

8) Make a commitment to show up for the agreed upon meetings whether or not you have pages to read. It's not fair to only appear if you have work to be read. This should inspire you to always have pages ready.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don't Wait For Inspiration. . .Wake Up The Muse

Writing is a creative, active and developing process. Definitely not static. What do you do when The Muse is on strike?
Some writers say they're having a "dry spell" or "writer's block." I'm fortunate in that I've never experienced this state of inertia in my writing. Other areas of my life, yes...but I can always write my way out of it.
About a year ago, two of my friends and I were at a place where we needed fresh fuel for the creative furnace. We made a list of story prompts and gave it a couple of hours to gel. Then we got back together online to share our efforts. The amazing thing is that two of us chose the same prompt but came up with entirely different scenarios. My fellow writer, Carol DeVaney and I went on to develop our respective stories into full grown manuscripts. The important thing is that we were both open to the challenge and willing to be enthused. I call this my "Yes! Attitude". I am willing to be drawn in, to take on new challenges, to take risks. I'm willing to jump in the lagoon without knowing all the facts. Is the water too cold? Is it too deep? Who cares. Just get wet.
What inspires me is something I call the What If Factor. What if a small-town preacher's daughter became enamored of a bad-boy biker just riding through? Lots of conflict. Lots of tension. Lots of heartache. Okay, what if you took it a step farther and gave it a twist? What if the hero was the small-town preacher with a very predictable day-to-day life? What if the heroine was a down-on-her luck drifter; maybe she has a bike; maybe she has a Bible in her backpack, but maybe it's a bundle of incriminating documents that she stole from her last employer, a Russian mob boss, who is actively searching for her? Still with me? Now let's give them more to lose: What if he is a widower and he has a young child (much more at stake). What if she's got to get to the coast in a week so she can catch up with the person who is going to smuggle her out of the country to safety? But she's drawn to this man who wants to protect her and save her soul? And he can't explain why he's willing to risk everything to help this woman on the run? I mean, WHAT IF???
I know this was a pretty hilarious and far-fetched example, but my message is, just let yourself go. Let your brain take you to strange and beautiful/dark/dangerous places and explore every interesting crevice...and write about it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Springing into Action

Spring in the Houston area is a fleeting experience. Don't blink! Summer will be upon us shortly and we'll wonder where these lovely spring days went. Of course, we have a pollen count in the zillions and everyone is sneezing their watery-eyed heads off. Fear not! The long hot summer will dry those eyes and everything else.
Springtime does bring about an appreciation for rebirth and renewal. I've put away winter clothing and done a spring cleaning (well, sort of). I'm eating more salads and I joined a gym where I can be found cycling my fanny off several times a week. All this activity may mean very little in the overall scheme of things, but in my little world, it means I'm getting lean, mean and green.
I'm also giving the same treatment to my novels. I'm slowly, one by one, revisiting the manuscripts in my store and revising them to their leanest, meanest and greenest version and I'm getting them out there.
The first one is Bad Habit. I spent a couple of months slashing and rebuilding it and now it's in the hands of my wonderful beta reader, Candace Fitzpatrick.
Another romantic suspense, Kill Shot, is getting a chapter by chapter makeover with my long-time, face-to-face critique group in our weekly meetings. I'm trying to clean up my act and get the novels polished to an acceptable state of vibrancy so they will be print worthy.
I've also been working on writing at least 100 new words daily. With my job, I was unable to do much writing, since I work 4-10 hour days and have a long drive to and from Houston. I tried writing on the 3 days off, but found that by Friday I couldn't really get a feel for the story. I made a public commitment to write at least 100 words daily, no matter how exhausted I might be. It's only about a half page. Thankfully, several hearty writers have joined me on FaceBook and I'm now over 200 days (and nights) with this challenge. Just this little effort has meant that I can stay in the story during the work week and by Friday, I am super productive. Join in if you want. Everyone is welcome.
I'm wondering what you are working on. Do you have a method for revision? Do you share it with others or keep it to yourself? Wishing you gleaming manuscripts worthy of readers everywhere.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

I got through NaNo this year by the skin of my already skinny teeth. In 2007 and 2008 I had zoomed through the National Novel Writing Month challenge of writing 50k words during the month of November without too much stress. This year, with a very complex and demanding job, I was less than confident that I would be able to meet the challenge.

As usual, I planned ahead and did so in a big way. I announced on FaceBook my own challenge and thus, I was committed. My FB challenge was to write a minimum of 100 words a day for 100 days. I started in September and planned this challenge to take me through the end of the year. I was pleasantly surprised when other writers joined me and when many others cheered us on.

I was a cheerleader for those who seriously got their NaNo words in high gear but lagged far behind. Some days, after working 1o hours and driving a considerable distance home, it was all I could do to squeeze out the 100 words. I posted this tiny progress each day and did write more during my 3-day weekend but doubted that I would make it across the NaNo finish line. Imagine my surprise when a friend poked me the day after Thanksgiving to inquire as to my word count and I discovered that I'd written 44k. I made an all out effort and finished November with just over 51k. Amazed myself.

The moral of this tale is that by adopting the habit of daily writing, one can become more productive overall. Join me at http://www.facebook.com/junefaver to jump in and commit to writing. Have a great holiday season.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Coping my way through NaNo 2009

Well, it's on. This NaNo is going a lot slower for me than in the past. I'm having doubts as to whether I can do it or not.
The day job requires that I work 4-10 hour days and I'm doing well after the long drive home to be able to write my 100 words per day. I hear you. Nobody likes a whiner and if I didn't have this job, I could go live under a nice cozy underpass...and then how would I keep the computer online under the bridge?
I think that finding a sugar daddy at this point in my life is a little far-fetched...although I could be VERY nice to a man who would pay my bills and allow me to write my fingers to the bone. ;-)
So the answer is, I must cope. Cope with the day job. Cope with the commute. Cope with my darling family and beloved friends who think I should spend time with them. Cope with the mechanic and the grocery clerk. And don't forget, cope with Minx (Micro-Beast) the 7.5 pound bundle of energy who thinks my only function is to throw balls, open cans of dog food and give belly-rubs. Easy to cope with Emily and Daisy, my guardian cats who keep me centered, purred over, massaged and comforted throughout.
Enough of this whining. I am focused and opening the manuscript. Writing words and not fretting over whether or not I can write a full 50k this month. The truth is, who cares? What I will do is write new words and maybe make the 50k mark again this year. I will continue to drive to the day job, and go to writer's organization meetings and my critique group, and visit my family and have dinner with friends...and prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner for my family and clean up afterwards...and still manage to write a few more words. If you're NaNoing, I wish you the best of luck and hope you can cope. *hugs*