How Not to Make Contest Judges Hate You

by J.D. Rhoades

     I had the honor this past year to serve as one of the committee chairmen for the MWA’s Edgar Awards. The committee that I headed up was the Best Young Adult Mystery, and let me tell you, it was an eye-opener. I went into it not knowing that much about the whole YA field, except Harry Potter (which I liked but could take or leave, based on the first book) and the TWILIGHT series, which I haven’t read, but which I hear an awful lot about from the teenagers in my house (one liked it okay, the other loathes it).

     After reading through a boatload of submissions, though, I was extremely impressed by both the breadth and depth of the subject matter and the quality of the writing. It was a tough choice, and the voting went several rounds, but I’m comfortable with the eventual winner: John Green‘s PAPER TOWNS.

     The voting process itself is shrouded in secrecy and covered by a variety of confidentiality agreements that make the whole selecting-the-Pope thing seem transparent. But I thought that, since I’m sure new committees are hard at work reading through a new batch of submissions, I’d toss out some general suggestions to publishers and publicists on how not to make committee members (and committee chairmen) hate you.

     You need to understand that some of the things I am going to tell you in the following paragraphs may not seem fair. That’s because they really are not fair. They are a natural function of the judges being human. Judges, if they’re doing their jobs. do try  to be better than the average human, but don’t stake your book’s chances on their succeeding.

  1.  Know what genre, if any, the award is for. The Edgars, for example,  is given by the MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA. I put that in all caps because it apparently escaped the notice of some publishers. Since these awards are–let me say it again–from the MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA, perhaps–and this is just a thought– the novels you send should have at least some component of mystery or crime in them. We got some beautifully written, moving books that just did not fit the genre, no matter how far we tried to stretch it. I began to think about midway through that a lot of books get submitted because some harried publicist told a summer intern “go pull some books to submit for the Edgar Award” and the poor clueless intern was too cowed to admit that he or she didn’t know what the hell the Edgar Award was. Well, poor clueless intern may not know, but you can bet your boots the judges do, and they’re slogging through a lot of submissions. If you really cannot rest until the judges read your fantasy epic or your beautiful, sensitive coming of age tale, neither one of which has so much as a stolen bike to bring it into the realm of crime fiction, then send  it after the awards, when they might  actually have time to read something else. Otherwise, they will hate you.
  2. Do not send ten books the week before the contest deadline. I know you’re busy and stuff slips up on you. But all of the judges are   working writers, and they have deadlines, too. Your gem may not get as thorough a read if the judges only have a day and a half to do it. And they will hate you.
  3.  On the other hand, if you send books too early, it’s possible that the book the judges all   loved early on is going to get pushed aside in their memory by the one they just read that they love, too. See “this is not fair” above. So when do you send them? I’d say about midway through the period. the judges may breathe a heavy sigh when the UPS guy shows up with another dozen books, but they probably won’t hate you. Much.
  4.  Once the submission period is over, please do not ask if the judges will  consider “just one more” that you forgot to submit. Sorry, I know stuff happens, mistakes get made, and it’s not the writer’s fault. The committee chair may really want to help you out, but I for one had no real wish to open that particular floodgate, because the old cliche is actually true: if they do it for you, they have to do it for everyone else. And, since what you’re making the chair and/or the committee  do is make an innocent writer suffer for something that was not their fault, said chair and/or committee  will feel guilty, and thus, will hate you.

     A final note: Maybe it’s because I haven’t gone to the right places in the blogosphere, but I was happy to see a big decrease this year in the usual bitching and whining about how the Edgars suck, how awards in general suck, how it’s all political, people only vote for their friends, blah blah blah. I can’t speak for the other committees, but the folks on the YA committee (Our Pari, Our Cornelia, Jeff Shelby, and Lori G. Armstrong) volunteered cheerfully with only a minimum of begging on my part. Then they worked very hard and bent over backwards to be fair, even when publishers violated the above guidelines. And I certainly didn’t hear any of the “well, this needs to win because such and such won last year” reasoning that awards judges are sometimes accused of.

     Thanks guys, it was an honor to be your chairperson. And thanks, Cornelia, for being there to present the award itself.

     So, ‘Rati: any of you ever judge an award? Have any suggestions of your own? Readers, if you’d like to chime in with your own stories, or even a “this book should’ve won” complaint, feel free. Just don’t trash my committee, or I’ll have to take steps. You don’t want me to take steps.

17 thoughts on “How Not to Make Contest Judges Hate You

  1. Karen Olson

    I was a judge for the MWA/St. Martin’s contest. I received many manuscripts, some very good, some not so good. Most people followed submission rules, but I did get four floppy discs instead of CDs. Floppies? I mean, really. Does anyone have a computer now that still takes a floppy?
    And I had one submission that came in a week after the deadline. Sent FedEx. So obviously the person knew it was late. I didn’t read it. Deadlines are there for a reason. I did get a couple of emails from a couple of people asking for feedback on their manuscripts. I kept notes on a few manuscripts that I liked quite a bit that made my final cuts, but I couldn’t keep notes on all of them. I did feel bad that I couldn’t provide the feedback sought, but there were way too many manuscripts to even really remember.

  2. Pari

    I’ve been a judge twice now and both times were just fascinating. Like you, I was really impressed with many of the submissions.

    And, Dusty, you were indeed a superb leader.

  3. Steve Steinbock

    I was chair of the IACW Hammett Award a few years ago, and I’ll tell you my biggest complaint: those lint-filled padded envelopes. You know the kind: they’re filled with mulched post-waste material). They may be more ecologically sound than the bubble-padded envelopes. But man! Any way you open those things (even pulling the little plastic strip on the side), the stuff gets everywhere, including inside the book. My committee and I came up with the term "Hammett Lung" for the condition resulting from inhaling the stuff.

  4. Louise Ure

    I’ve been on judging panels for both MWA and ITW in the past and am currently the Chairperson for an Edgar committee this year. I applaud your advice here, Dusty, but I’d change one bit of it. In point #3, I’d say "send the book as soon as it’s published. And if it’s to be published in December, send an ARC as soon as you have it." Our committee is taking lots of notes; I doubt that we’ll forget an early book if it is a favorite. And if I get a hundred books showing up at the door after Thanksgiving, I guarantee you they’re not going to get the same thorough reading as the earlier ones.

  5. TerriMolina

    I’ve judged a variety of RWA unpublished contests….you think judging the Edgars is hard? Try judging an unpubbed contest like the Golden Heart. A lot of times you get 50 pages of really really bad writing (to be polite). Then there are the contests where you have to give a reason for your score or just general comments to help the writer. So I agree being a judge is tough even without the added pressure of writing deadlines.

    I’ve also entered a few RWA unpublished contests. No, I never win or even final because I don’t follow the *rules* of a romance novel, hence why I’m occassionally in the "don’t like contest judges" line. I just got back a score sheet from a contest, entered the novel on submission at Avon. and the judge tore it to pieces! Even called my dialogue stilted (I have never been told that about my work).

    Needless to say, I’m done with contests.

  6. J.D. Rhoades

    Karen, Terri: I don’t know what we would have done if we’d had to provide "helpful feedback." Oy.

    Jeff, Pari: thank you. You guys made it easy.

    Will: I felt the same way when I got roped in…sorry, I mean volunteered. But you know, good storytelling is good storytelling.

    Steve, I’m laughing hard at ‘Hammett lung." I know exactly what you mean. I’m still finding tufts of that stuff behind the desk.

    Louise: some folks did send ARCs and it was much appreciated. Then they sent the published book and that was a bit confusing, but they made great gifts <g.>

  7. Steve Steinbock

    J.D., I almost made a comment about how "Dusty" those padded envelopes are, but I managed to avoid the pun.

    I just finished PAPER TOWNS, and loved it. I thought it skirted the margins of the genre, but wow, what a nice, thought provoking book. Thanks for your work on the committee. (Plus, I got to see your co-committee member and co-blogger Cornelia in her sexy boots).

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent post, Dusty.

    The thing about the conspiracy theories regarding judging which always amused me was the idea that a bunch of writers could actually agree how to conspire as well as keep it a secret.

  9. Jake Nantz

    Great post Dusty.

    And for anyone who DOES want to complain about the judges (hell, any judges), don’t make him pull over this blog, or we’re all turning around and going STRAIGHT home.

  10. Jill James

    I love judging contests. I try to do 3 or 4 a year. As an unpublished writer I like to see what else is out there. And sorry!! I’m human, sometimes I like to see bad entries to know mine are pretty middle of the road. Not award-winning, but definitely not as bad as some of the entries I’ve seen.

  11. J.D. Rhoades

    Steve: she wore BOOTS? As if I wasn’t depressed enough at having missed the ceremony.

    Cornelia. Boots. rrrrROWR….

    And thanks for letting the name thing go. Really, From the bottom of my heart.

    Toni: good point. Plus, who the hell had the time for a conspiracy?

    Thanks, Jake And y’all behave in the back seat there.

    Jill: careful what you ask for, darlin’….

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yo, Dust-o-rama,
    I haven’t had the good fortune to judge a competition yet. I’ve definitely been on the other end a number of times, mostly for screenwriting competitions. It’s always a harrowing experience, waiting every day for that little note to come in the mail.

  13. QE2

    I sat next to Cornelia at the Edgar dinner solely so I could ogle her boots. S’truth!

    I’ve judged a few writing contests here and there. Some were well managed, some were terrifying and the few that were truly crazy I have no one to blame but msyelf since I instigated them.

    I have nothing but the utmost respect for all of you who serve on Edgar committees. It’s a huge time commitment just for starters, and it can mean giving up writing time as well (unhappy agent frown at that part let me tell you.)

    It’s hard to decide what criteria to use. Do you reward only successful execution; or, do you reward taking risks even if the risk didn’t quite work? Do you reward brilliant writing or brilliant plotting? Do you reward the author who challenges your comfort zone? Do you reward the author who bends the genre, or do you reward the author who executes a lovely novel within the genre bounds. And what the hell ARE the genre bounds anyway now that we’re trying to figure out what qualifies as a mystery and suitable for Edgar nomination.

    Thankfully I don’t have to answer any of these questions. I get to go back to ogling Cornelia’s boots and reading COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen (a book I’m betting the non-fiction category judges will see as well!)


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