This article first appeared in the March 2007 issue of Update, the newsletter of Washington Romance Writers.
While judging a recent package of contest entries, it hit me. I could place a check by “published judge” on the score sheet. A small thing, really, but with the change of my judging status came a much greater sense of responsibility.
During my long road to publication, I’d been on the other side of dozens of contest score sheets. Remarks from published judges made me sit up and take a bit more notice. After all, the published judges had what it took. They had the elusive “it” factor that I so desperately craved.
Truthfully, I looked everywhere for this prize, but it wasn’t dangling from the apple tree just waiting to be plucked. With the fervor of the newly baptized, I’d assumed I had “it” with my first manuscript, a manuscript that will never again see the light of day. My first critique group saw promise in my work, my second critique group identified the flaws in my writing.
Contest entries washed back up on my expectant shores, loaded with bad tidings. Poorly motivated characters. Insufficient conflict for a story this length. No distinct voice. Thank God for formatting points or I’d have bombed my first contests. But the news wasn’t all bad. The most helpful judges offered encouragement and insight about the writing sisterhood.
In those early days I didn’t realize how connected story elements had to be. But contest by contest, year by year, my writing improved and connected. As my plotting tightened, my characters’ motivations rang truer, and I wrote with passion.
Writing better and smarter won me two publishing contracts in three months, and the unparalleled thrill of a third publishing house writing me to ask for a submission. Granted, I’m a very tiny minnow in the ocean of publishing, but I’m swimming with the big guys.
Which brings me back full circle to those contest entries on my desk. Very few of us are born with “it;” most of us find it along the way. And I certainly had received my share of assistance. How could I make a difference in someone else’s writing? Could I help newbies avoid the mistakes I’d made?
Taking a leaf from the medical profession, I applied the standard of “first do no harm” to my published judgeship. Then I showed through examples some ways in which the entry could be strengthened, being careful not to overwhelm the writer with too much information or negativity. As I wrote, I realized the lessons I’d learned were meaningful because I’d learned them firsthand in the trenches. If this writer improved, it would be because she had gone out and learned how to be better, not because of any profound insight I shared.
Encouragement was needed. “It’s clear that you have a passion for your story,” I wrote on the score sheet. “Your writing shows great promise.” Then I checked off the box for published judge. I’d done my part. The rest was up to the writer.