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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Judged Also Judge - But How?

When you enter the Golden Heart, RWA also asks you to judge. What do you do when you don't exactly feel secure about judging?

First, remember this blog is here. It will be a while before you receive your Golden Heart entries to judge. More importantly remember that RWA has a nice list of GH Judges' FAQs. The Judges' FAQs cover such questions as how to use the 1 to 9 scale, how to decide what the scale means, what to do if an entry doesn't meet the guidelines, formating issues. It is a must to read before judging, so remember it is there.

I'm going to tell you my philosophy of judging and you are free to use it or discard it. There's nothing official about this; it is just my opinion. Much of my opinion is based on RWA Judge's Training that my friends Pam Palmer and Denise McInerney give each year for Washington Romance Writers. (Pam is a 2005 Golden Heart Winner, by the way)

1. Start with the impression that this is going to be the best entry you've ever read. If you start from the perspective of Positive Thinking, you are more apt to see what the writer does well. Be rooting for this person. Rather than worry about finding fault; focus on what is right.

2. Make your own 1 to 9 scale. Decide ahead of time what a perfect 9 would be and how bad an entry must be to make a 1. RWA wants you to use your own judgment, bearing in mind that the "judges should evaluate entries as though each is ready for publication, but lacking only the benefit of professional editing granted published work." Not the best book you've ever read, because that book would have had the benefit of professional editing, but a book you think worthy of being in print.

So your 9 could be, something like: "Hey, I want to see this one in print!"
An 8 could be: "Oh, this is so close..."

I think it is harder to go down the scale. What is a 5? How is a 5 different than a 6? What is a 1?

Don't sweat it, is my advice. The important scores are at the top of the scale, because those determine who finals. So your standard could be: 9 - This entry MUST final; 8 - I wouldn't mind if this one finaled; 7 - This entry is close, but I don't think it is quite close enough to final.

Below 7 just take your sense of where the manuscript is and don't worry about it...I always consider 5 as average, by the way, my "average" meaning this is what I expect of most beginning writers.

3. When should I give a 1?
My answer to this question is almost never (in my opinion). I think an entry that deserves a 1 is not likely to be entered in the Golden Heart. It would be a totally incomprehensible entry on every level. In fact, I'm hard pressed to give out 3s and 2s. I can't forget that there is a person behind the entry, a person whom I cannot tell why I am giving a low score, a person with feelings. In the absence of feedback, my philosophy is to give the person a score that clues them in to the fact that their entry needs work. To me, an average or slightly below average score will do that. Heck, even a 6 or 7 will do that! (Although I reserve those scores for entries that almost are making it)

This is just my style, my opinion. I'm not saying you should do this, too. RWA does give permission to score entries the full range of the scale and stresses that you are supposed to use your own judgment .

4. There is nothing I could find on the website that discusses the use of fractions or decimals - giving an entry an 8.9 or a 6.3, for example. If the final instructions include the use of decimals, by all means use them. Again, I advocate not agonizing over this. Go with your gut....or make yourself a detailed guideline of what each of the decimals mean to you...but don't worry so much about scores below 7. If you can't decide between an 8.3 and a 8.4 or an 8.8, remember that entries can miss the finals by one tenth of a point, then decide if you want this entry to have the higher score or not.

5. Try to keep your personal tastes out of your judging. This is admittedly a hard thing to do. It is made even harder, because you probably won't be judging the category you like the most and know the most about- the category you entered. Think about what you believe are the elements of good story, things like character, conflict, plot, dialogue, word usage, and judge the entry as to whether it meets those elements. For example, I personally do not read much paranormal, especially vampires (exception being Colleen Gleason's Gardella Vampire Chronicles, which I adore), werewolves, and such, but I've judged paranormal contest entries. I try to look at the entry in terms of my standards for story and if the writer meets those standards, then I score high. For the Golden Heart, I would ask myself, "Should an editor should buy this?" not, "Do I like this story."

6. Judge each entry on its own merits. DO NOT compare your packet of entries and judge them against each other. You are not ranking the entries; you are judging against a standard, and it is possible that all your entries are 9s. If they are all 9s, by all means give them what they deserve.

So when you open your packet of Golden Heart entries, think, "Goody! I'll bet these are all 9s!" then carefully read the RWA judging instructions. Next, look up the GH Judges' FAQs, and if you need more, come back to this blog.

The judging will be a piece of cake.

What is your philosophy of judging? Do you think of the task differently than I do?

What trips you up the most when you are judging?

Read Diane's bio here and visit her website for a new contest in the countdown to The Vanishing Viscountess, January 2008.

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At 11:28 AM, Blogger Karen said...

Diane, I concur wholeheartedly with all your points but particularly agree with your admonition to remember that there is a person behind every entry. It doesn't do anyone any good to crush someone's hopes with a 1 or 2; the contestant will feel horrible and so will the judge.

In many ways the GH is the easiest contest to judge--no comments to write out. You can read the entry and just let impressions wash over you.

Good luck!

At 12:15 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

This is such fair-minded thinking, Diane. I hope you judge my entries! :-)

A thing that recently threw me in a contest I judged was a serious "ick factor" entry. It was an erotic paranormal (a genre I thought I was pretty familiar with) in which the interaction between the two main characters was a particularly brutal BDSM type relationship. I ended up scoring it very low because I thought it lacked some serious fundamentals in basic romance writing, but I felt really guilty because I just didn't LIKE the nature of the I felt like I should run out and read a few BDSM novels to familiarize myself with what a good one would actually be. I tried to be super fair and encouraging to the author just because of my guilt. :-)

I know for the sake of fairness there's probably no way of getting around the rule of not judging in your own category, but kinda reminds of me of what it would be like to have a synchronized swimming judge select the winner of a high diving competition. Probably not the greatest analogy, but maybe you know what I mean...

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

Very nice job, Diane!

banksofmillbrook brings up a very good point. I think how you handled it was perfect. I'd much rather have a judge be aware and then handle their judging accordingly. We all have "ick factors" but being able to isolate that, in my opinion, makes you a stronger judge.

Also, if you get an entry that there is just no way you can read it, send it back. I've coordinated contests before and had this happen, and while I scrambled to get a new judge, I appreciated the judge's honesty with herself and me, and I know the entrant would have had she known.

One thing I also suggest is don't be afraid to give a 9. I've actually heard people say they won't give a 9 because that would mean the entry was perfect, and no entry is perfect (which makes me wonder if that's the reason there's no 10 - to avoid this perfection thinking).

Also, I hear a lot about creating a likeable hero/heroine, and people counting points off because he or she might not be someone a reader likes right at the beginning. My favorite kind of people are those with flaws - that have a lot to work out in order to be the kind of person who deserves love.

A character might not be really likeable in the first 50 pages or so, but that's not a reason to score lower (this might happen more in local chapter contests). Although if someone is truly despicable, shows no character growth even after reading the synopsis - that's another thing.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Santa said...

Great pointers, Diane!

Is it only participants who do the first round judging or are published authors also involved?

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

Published authors can also judge the Golden Heart if they wish. I judged the GH and the Rita for quite a while.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I've done some judging as a reader. My only advice is allow yourself some time and take breaks between entries. You are less likely to compare the entries if you don't read them back to back. So build extra days into your judging schedule. I try to do one a week, if the contest schedule permits.

And if an entry isn't hitting me just right at first, I take a breather to do a self-check. Is it me? Was I in a bad mood to begin with? Are the kids making me crazy? Did I have a bad day or feel a little under the weather? Is something else distracting me? If I determine the problem is with me, then I put the entry down, wait a few days, and start again...with a different entry. I'll come back to the first one later so that I've truly put time and space between whatever the problem was and that writer's entry.

I handle books that I review the say way.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Okay, that would be "...the same way." Oops!

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wonderful post! And good point, Patricia, to take some time between reading each entry. I have given out a lot of 9's over the years. If the story grabs me and keeps me reading, it's a 9!

And Diane, I wholeheartedly agree not to sweat it either way. Read the FAQs and then give it your best shot.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I would say the great majority of first round judges are GH entrants, ie people just like you, Santa! Other RWA members judge. I know of some who are judging this year to see what the contest is like before they enter. A few published authors judge, but there is the same pressure for us to judge the RITA, which has about the same judging rules.

Banks, those entries are the hardest to judge, I think. I had one like that for the RITA a few years ago. Not at all what I like to read, and I just tried to do the same thing you did. But, really, if you know you'd score the entry a 7 or below for other reasons, I wouldn't agonize over what to give it below that. The question for me always is, "Does this entry (book or ms) deserve to final?"

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I'm really looking forward to reading and judging categories totally different from what I write, simply because it will be such a nice break--and I don't think I'll be as tempted to compare these stories to others I am familiar with.

At 6:45 PM, Anonymous beverley said...

Oh I totally agree. I don't judge entries by how much or even if I like them personally, I just try to see if the targeted audience would like it by going exactly the points you listed.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger JeanneD said...

I hope everyone who's juding the GH this year has read this Wet Noddle post!

Good luck to everyone who has entered.

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

This post was great, not just for those judging, but for those of us being judged to understand the process. Knowing there are these kinds of guidelines helps me feel more comfortable about the mindset of the judges, and the fact that they aren't out there on their own.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gaill, the thing is, there are not very many guidelines from RWA. RWA wants the judge to use their own...judgment. So these guidelines are my way of doing it.

The thing you have to know is that you might get great judges, or you might get lousy judges. This is the "crap shoot" element of the Golden Heart and the RITA. That's why I feel that your scores don't mean that much, unless you final.

At 9:41 PM, Blogger doglady said...

I have to agree with my BFF Gaill. I really appreciate these guidelines and knowing a bit about how judges might think. I always take into consideration that the judges are human too. They have bad days, different opinions, and different criteria for what they like to read. Lets hope all of the judges pop by here and read Diane's blog on the subject. I read a wide variety of romance so I will enjoy reading just about anything. Regency / Historicals, however are my bread and butter!

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I like the way you've analyzed and clarified this, Diane. I think I'm pretty much in agreement. I think the good thing about the way the GH is scored is that it allows for the same sort of individuality in judges that an author experiences with readers. It virtually acknowledges the subjectivity of judging. And any time a bunch of people are deciding which of a group is the best, that's a subjective judgment.

In any contest, I believe the quality of the story can override the quality of the writing technique. But only if it is really good enough. Tell me a really good story, and I'll get so enthralled, your drawbacks will fade, possibly with some of them going unnoticed. But if the story has a "ho-hum, I've already read this somewhere" feel, chances are good the technique flaws will become more obvious. Again, that's subjectivity.

If I feel an entry should be a finalist because I think it's that good, I make sure I give it a score that makes finalling possible: at least an 8, because chances are excellent a 7 will knock it out of the running. If I think this story deserves to win, you can be sure I'll give it a 9 even if I can see obvious flaws. All stories have some flaws, so I would never knock a book out of the running unless those flaws are serious enough that I believe it shouldn't final.

I've never given a 1 and doubt if I ever will. 3's yes, but very rarely. I had an entry once that clearly demonstrated the author had no idea of how fiction is structured, and it was so incomprehensible, I never did figure out where the author was going, not in either the story or the synopsis.

And I know I have a bias against gross historical inaccuracies. I mean GROSS ones, because I think I'm really lenient on this as far as scoring goes. But I still believe if you don't want to study history, don't write historicals. Or avoid me as your judge. I also think it's a serious flaw if the author has written 50 pages and I still can't identify the main character. Or if the story has not yet begun. But those flaws would probably get at least a 4 or 5 from me.

The difficulty, as Diane said, is a single number is the only way a judge has of telling the author what needs to be fixed. And the best I can say is, if I gave you a 7 or higher, I think your story is good enough to keep working on it. If it's around 6 or 5, then something is seriously lacking, and probably the story doesn't have anything that makes it unlike many other stories of that genre-- it's generic. Either find a unique twist for it or start something new. If it's under 5, well, you have both story and structure work to do, and lots of it.

That's as close as I can come to my own score chart. Every year I find something that throws me for a loop, though.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I forgot to say, I use decimals only when I'm having trouble deciding between two whole numbers. Then I have to ask myself how close it is to the higher number, or is it closer to the lower number. I'll dither for hours over that. I'm guessing the score I give most often is 7.6 but I'd have a hard time explaining that choice.


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