I've been judging contests for a couple of years, but this is the first time I volunteered to judge the Golden Heart, RWA's prestigious contest for new writers. There are over 1000 entrants or more per year, in ten categories, and the first-round judging is done by members all over the country.
No feedback is given in this contest--you simply get a list of six numerical scores, 1-9.
I long to give feedback to everyone, to tell them what exactly it was that made me score them as I did. I believe the purpose of contests is to mentor and teach--not to knock people down. But this contest does not give you the opportunity to do that. So...
Here's what I wish I could say to the entrants I had the honor of judging:
--Conflict drives a story and if you have no external conflict, but focus only on the internal, the reader soon becomes bored. BUT YOU CAN FIX THIS!
--Don't replace your external conflict with strange, unlikely events that happen suddenly that would never happen in real life (unless you are writing paranormal). This is an attempt at trying to make the story exciting but it falls flat because it is forced. BUT YOU CAN FIX THIS!
--Pacing has to be fast to keep your readers' attention. I think writers often lose track of pacing because we are so submerged into the story and want to be careful to explain many different things so as to not lose our readers. BUT YOU CAN FIX THIS!
--Inserting emotions that are way over the top doesn't add excitement to the story. If the heroine squeaks, bursts, or prances, the reader can only wonder if she is human. AN EASY FIX!
--Does your heroine make bad decisions based on low self esteem that are hard to understand or are not explained well? The reader has to have immediate sympathy with your heroine and if she/he doesn't, it may be because the decisions she makes are not explained well. BUT YOU CAN FIX THIS, TOO!
--If you are making jokes in your writing, they may fall flat. Humor is hard to write.
--One story had an incredible amount of heart but the writing had many flaws (and I don't mean grammar, etc. I mean story structure problems.) But the heart of the story was so good, I wished I could score it higher.
--What's the cure for all these things? Critique partners and Readers. Readers that read a lot of the genre you write in and feel free to tell you honestly, hey! this just did not sit well with me. Especially in the entry with a lot of heart, this writer will never know by numerical score how much possibility her entry has. That she can easily improve her story, polish it up and get it out there again.
--I am always amazed at how blind to my own story problems I become. The total immersion it takes to build a story world becomes blinding after a while. I had to force myself to let other people read my work, but you know what? It gets easier all the time. Because the only way to get better and better is to put yourself out there.