Ignoring all the short stories I wrote as a angsty teen – where my heroine ALWAYS died and the hero promised to never love anyone else, ever again – my first book was an historical romance titled Of Captured Heart. I remember so well submitting my first pages to a critique group, where a VERY patient woman who would later go on to writer fame as the author of the GMC bible, gently told me how bad it was. She used the phrase “purple prose monster” to describe my elaborate and multi-page ramblings on backstory and the detail surrounding the tapestries one would find in a nineteenth-century English estate. Her voice is the one I hear in my head when I write.
It’s also why I offer to judge many contests throughout the year. I love finding a fresh voice or an exciting twist to a tried-and-true storyline. But I also love being a gentle guide to a story in the grips of the purple prose monster. It’s hard to temper the desire to fix every mistake, point out every element that needs work. As a writer, I want to know the flaws in my story so I can fix them. I’ve also gotten back contest entries – long ago when we still submitted them in paper format – so covered in red ink that I couldn’t see the original text.
So here’s my take on judging.
- Some author out there has entrusted you with their baby. Treat it gently.
- Focus. See #1. The author has paid money to get your opinion. Give them their money’s worth.
- There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the weaknesses or mistakes. Hopefully the author is open to feedback and will recognize that it’s one person’s opinion. I always state this however, in case they forget because it’s not always easy to remember.
- Brag on the positives. Do it strongly. And often. It’s easy to find what’s wrong. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a positive in a story that’s mired in backstory or typos. That’s why it’s important to brag on the positives. We are artists and I believe that whether we admit it or not, we tie ourselves quite intimately to acceptance of our work.
- When you’re done judging, set the entry aside for a day. Then go back and read your comments again with fresh eyes. Make sure your tone is positive and helpful. That’s what you wanted when you were on the other side of the scoresheet.
In all things, I think we should give back. I have cried over comments and I have danced around the room holding the scoresheet to my heart. (that last one is not any prettier than the snotty crying, btw) I hope I never cause the first in another writer but I’m sure I have. And if I’ve been the cause of any celebratory dancing, then I’ve been successful at my job. In the end, I hope that I teach as much as I learn, support as strongly as I am supported and encourage as so many around me (especially lately) have bolstered my confidence.