Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pimp your Prose

Good morning, all, and how about that news we posted yesterday!!! You guys knew I finaled before I did, LOL!!!

Ruthy here, with your regular dose of snarkism brought to you fresh and free, delivered right to your door, better’n a milkman ‘cause there’s no bill involved.

Today’s post comes with a no-strings-attached bit of wisdom that came to me as I was reading a response to Tina’s post the other day.

Judging differentiation.

We all realize that judging is subjective, that while one judge might love your work, another may not, and the truth may lie somewhere in between, right? But I think it’s important to talk to judges today, to those among us who actually judge contests, and see if we practice what we preach.

Inspirationals are a tough go for many judges. They may or may not feel qualified to assess a faith thread, or know how to measure that. In Ruthy’s world, the faith thread does not need to be dragged out or hit-the-reader-over-the-head obvious, but that’s me. Other judges will not relate to your work unless it has a strong, basic fundamentalist background. This means you may or may not get a judge who likes your style, or appreciates a lighter Christian read. On top of that, inspirationals are lumped. Long contemporaries, short contemporaries, historicals, fantasies, mysteries…

All judged together under one umbrella. It’s hard enough for a judge to separate his or her personal preferences of writing style within one category, but inspirationals (with the exception of straight inspirational contests like Genesis or TBL) are grouped together like a well-mixed greens salad. You might like how endive looks, but hate the taste, so how will you score it?

Not well.

The same can hold true within straight romance categories. How often have you been told that the opening you geared specifically for Single Title or Superromance is too slow, that your story starts on page four when the hero walks into the room? Some judges want smack-down hero/heroine development from page one, and nothing else will do, regardless of target publisher or length. If your heroine doesn’t start the book inadvertently sitting in the front seat of the hero’s car (or office, or yard, or kitchen…), you get points off. Never mind that your target publisher allows you those few pages of story building, the judge may not.

(Let me interject here that I found the Yellow Rose Winter Rose to be very well done with judging subjectivity. While I didn't final, I came close and the judge's seriously took into account my target publisher and the style adopted to aim at that publishing line)

I enjoy stories that actually d-e-v-e-l-o-p rather than lay everything out in the opening three pages. Sure, the opening needs to hook, but a long contemp, Superromance or Single Title should allow more leeway than a regular romance.

And I love that in a good book. Anna DeStefano does that in her Supers, as does Kathryn Shay and Rogenna Brewer, among a cast of others. Marie Ferrarella is wonderful at laying groundwork for a story, but in contests it might be hard to get that by judges.

My friend Andrea Wilder (Fearless, Dorchester, 2007), who blogged for us in February, admits that she tweaked the story to make judges happy. When Alicia Condon (Dorchester) saw the real deal, the story written as it was meant to be, the opening was more fully developed, but Andrea had learned what takes some of us longer to figure out. Lots of judges want that instant fix, that WHAM! GMC that spills the internal organs of the story in full-blown instant fashion.

By tweaking her story to give that punch, she ended up winning the contest and ultimately was contracted. If you’ve ever entered Romancing the Tome, that’s a basic example of story punching right there. In five pages you have to sell the judges on your amazingly wonderful opening to get a seat in the finalists’ box. Five pages.

That’s a total front-load dump, but necessary for the format.

Andrea’s methods provide a good lesson for us to learn. If you final, you might get a request for a full. If so, then you lay out the story as it should be, plotted and planned for that editor’s line. Until then, many of us would be wise to adjust our strategies for particular contests. The fact is, if we don’t final, we don’t get a spot on the desk, right?

Of course, right!

Finaling is the goal, the initial confirmation of talent and perseverance. Once you’re there, you may or may not get the chance to dazzle the editor with your understated brilliance, but if you don’t get there, it’s guaranteed you won’t.

So even though it might feel like your pimping your work to someone else’s specifications, tough it out, tone it up, streamline, baby, streamline. Get the bang for your contest buck by recognizing the hidden rules. Earn your chance to shine.

Learning to adapt has fringe benefits as well. When an editor requests changes to your amazingly wonderful piece of work, today’s timely lesson helps you to remember the basics. She (or he) is paying. Smile, nod, and do what you’re told. Show ‘em you’ve got the gumption to be in the hot seat. Learning to do what it takes to succeed in contests is a great stepping stone to becoming the kind of author an editor desires. Tough enough to be good, strong enough to accept direction.



  1. Ruthy, you're one wise woman! We writers must be flexible if we hope to final and win contests, and later after we sell, keep our editor happy. I used to altar the opening of my manuscripts to fit the contest guidelines upon occasion. And it helped.

    What's for breakfast? I'm starving.


  2. Janet, I'm too excited to cook! Mary, bring something by, won't you darling, and Tina, can you grab a tray of Italian cookies at the Italian market in Denver???

    I need some of those chewy, chocolate drizzled macaroons in the worst possible way.

    And a caramel frappuccino would be nice, too.

    What's an extra 1,000 calories before 10:00 A.M.???


  3. Oh I am learning this lesson in the most painful way of late. 10 contests, 13 entries and only 2 finals. Ouch, my wallet and my ego hurt.

    And yes, I need to prostitute my story and get more GMC up front.

    She who normally will jump when told to jump by anyone yielding a contract for non fiction or short stories DOES have a hard time with that. I admit.

    Going back to cave to mull this over. Bringing Godiva Dark Chocolate Chocoiste bar with me.

  4. Ooooo, Ruthy, great post!!!

    Unlike Tina, I have nooo problem "prostituting" myself or my ms. (that didn't sound good, did it? But you know what I mean). Kind of a paraphrase on "I will be all things to all people for the sake of Christ."

    I will be all things to all contest judges/editors for the sake of publication.

    To underscore this willingness to debase myself, I actually had two versions of A Passion Most Pure -- a cleaned-up CBA version (no drinking, card playing, Catholicism and way less romantic tension) and a more true-to-my-heart ABA version, which, thank you God, my agent inadvertantly sent to Revell!!

    So I totally agree with Ruthy on this one -- taylor your contest entries OR manuscripts to the specific contest/publisher. My motto is "Whatever it takes."
    Uh-hum ... within reason and Biblical boundaries, of course ...

  5. Ruthy, I'm back from Starbucks with caramel frappuccinos for you and our guests and a luscious mocha for me. Nothing like a caffeine high to get the juices flowing. Though it's tough typing with the tremors. :-)

  6. Janet, drink them more often and the tremors disappear. Promise.

    Tina, I feel the pain. There's a score of 'no final' in my winter/spring notebook as well. Some were close, some weren't.

    And we won't even mention my GH debacle, LOL!!!

    Another thing Tina and I noticed is that authors who 'get' your stuff most likely work with editors who might 'get' your stuff.

    Birds of a feather, and all that. A targeting tip right there.

    Hey, I do have a fresh-baked strawberry rhubarb pie here, made as bribery for the band of merry maids who gathered at my house last night to make invitations for an un-named bride in Minnesota.

    Bride, if you stop by today, be careful. Everyone knows you.



  7. Ruthy, I love that we have a new blog tag that says pimping. LOL!!

    Pimp your Prose. Love it! Great post--and a nice insider tactic. Sometimes you just need that little extra "something" that gets you your chance to land on an editor's desk.

    Janet, I'm starving, too! gotta keep reading comments to see what Ruthy is providing today.


  8. I don't want to talk about no stupid contests.

    I hate contests.

    I hate contest judges.

    Hatehatehatehatehatehatehatehate. Hate.

    I'm considering buying a voodoo collection that I can label with contest name and judge number.

    And to top this all off, I'm not even ranting about my entry/entries in a contest.

    I'm staring at one of my TBL contest categories and wondering how one judge can give an entry a 90 (out of 155) while another judge can give it a 147. How is the poor entrant going to put those scores in context?

    My heart breaks for her.

    Uggh. I'm depressing myself. On to prostituting because I need something to cheer me up.

    I recently entered a contest that had a very strict entry word/page limit. To end on the best hook, I had to tighten.

    What surprised me is that when I was finished tightening, I realized the chapter was better. Fortunately I didn't have to sanitize anything to lessen my chances of offending a more prudish judge, but I am more of aware of how sensuality stringent some CBA readers/judges/writers can be since entering the Genesis.

    Of course I do think those easily offended folk are in a minority to those reasonable-minded ones of us.

    I remember judging an entry once where after the third time the heroine said "I must find the man who killed my sister," I wrote a note to the entrant.

    Just between us, I got the heroine's goal the first time she mentioned it. But I can understand why you repeated it two more times. Some contest judges will miss it if you don't whack them upside the head with it. I'm assuming what you'd send to an editor wouldn't belittle the editor's intelligence. But I'm totally okay with belittling the judge's intelligence becuase when you're entering a contest, you keep to ensure your entry can score well with the questions."

    Okay, I might not have said all of that, but the general point I did.

    BTW, my son's plastic surgeon looks like Cowboy's quarterback Tony Romo.

    Well, if Romo didn't have such Dumbo ears and was a foot shorter and fifty pound lighter. And wore high-waisted pants.

    Said son's leg burn is healing amazingly. Praise God!

  9. Bride here.

    I must give myself props for somehow getting out of helping with the assembling of my own wedding invitations! :) Of course I am in charge of addressing all 175 invites, but at least I pawned off the cutting/gluing/pain-in-the-bum part on my cousin, sis-in-law, and friend.

    I think I'll be buying the next round of frappuccinos! :-)

    Ruthy, I am so proud of you! You hosted the most amazing bridal shower ever this past Saturday, work like crazy everyday, write amazing stories that I can't get enough of, final in a contest, and basically spoil everyone around you with delicious food (including the invitation assembly crew last night), and still look marvelous! ;) How do you do it?

    I love you and I can't wait to read your latest stories! I miss being your primary editor!

    Ladies, try the strawberry rhubarb pie, it's delish!

    Beth (The future Mrs. Jamison)

  10. i'm going to use all your words of wisdom to finish up my TBL entries. I need to get those back soon.
    Since it's imaginary food, let's go ahead and IMAGINE I brought something...your favorite in fact.

  11. I'd prefer to call it tweaking to pimping but I get the idea :-)

    Best wishes to bride and family!

  12. Hi Ruthy and crew,

    I love your blog. It speaks straight about a topic I adore: contests. Ruthy, one comment you made really struck me. "We all realize that judging is subjective, that while one judge might love your work, another may not, and the truth may lie somewhere in between, right?" I would like to take a lot of judges to task for scoring an entry based on whether or not they love your work or not. As judges it is our job to evaluate an entry based on characterization, craft and storytelling. I have judged entries I disliked because of style or subject matter, but couldn't find anything wrong with the writer's craft and scored appropriately. If we're judging we should know something about writing and be able to help newby writers understand what they need to do to improve their stories. We are not there to impose our personal preferences.

    As for altering your story to final, well, that's unfortunately a byproduct of the judging system. I just submitted a first chapter to the TARA contest where I had to take 800 words out of the middle of the first chapter to make their 4000 word max restriction. Those same words will go back into the chapter for the next contest it enters. Are they necessary? Apparently not. But they add a little flavor to the scene that I want in there.

    Cat--off her soapbox and hoping there's rhubarb pie left

  13. I would imagine myself eating this imaginary food, but an 80 and a 139 have me riled.

    Either one judge was overly generous, one overly harsh, or both overly overly. I oughta read the entries myself to see who got it right. Or if both got it wrong.

    Poor entrants.

    This is why contests should either have a discretionary judge or have an automatic third judge, that way the score outide the medium could be dropped.

    Hmm. What if an entry got two low scores and one really high?

    Do we drop the highest?

    Gee, Mary, I don't think you're the only Seeker who hasn't sent back her scoresheets.

  14. Gina, I feel what you're saying. When you're coordinating a contest or a category, and you see rough judging areas, it's hard not to jump in and 'fix it'...

    Admittedly, I know of coordinators who have done just that, and then work to change contest guidelines to make it more fair and less arbitrary the next time out.

    The Winter Rose (Yellow Rose RWA) uses FOUR readers/judges.


    Lowest score gets dropped which allows for built in discrepancy judging. That way if you draw one 'pill' (my mother-in-law's term) or a snark (mine) like Cat referred to, then they don't pull you down.

    If two people score you low, ya' might just have to tweak a bit, or make your points more clear and concise.

    Gina, talk about that with the overall contest gurus at FH&L. It couldn't hurt to make the judging more discrepancy friendly, right?

    And Cat!!!

    Hey, girlfriend, thanks for stopping by! I first met Cat when I was coordinating the Barclay. Audra, if you're out there, you fell in love with Cat's entry, The Christmas Bargain, remember???

    So Cat and I started checking up on one another. At the time I had an agent and took a contest break but when that didn't seem to be getting me anywhere I jumped back on the bandwagon.

    And Cat's in Minnesota, not far from Bride.


    Okay, I've got Culver's bringing in lunch today in honor of Cat's appearance. Those fried cheese curds???? So mid-west and sooooo good. I'd be a house if I lived there, minimal.

    And Bethy, welcome to Seekerville!!! We had lots of fun doing invites and everyone got fed.

    All good.

    So girls, put your orders in for Culver's Butterburgers and cheese curds. Or french fries. Onion rings.

    A real naughty lunch today.

    Ann, I love the word tweak... But I'm thinkin' that what we're doing to make it in a contest is definitely more of a 'pimp'...

    But I blush when I say it, LOL!


  15. And becuase I actually enjoy coordinating a contest category, I signed up to coordinate the historical category of the Golden Pen. It's the contest where the judges are all GH finalists.

    Cat, you made an excellent point about not judging an entry on whether you liked it or not. Many contest questions are cut and dry.

    Either the GMC is there or it's not. Either setting is there or it's not. Etc.

    But some questions do factor personal likes into them.

    Is the heroine/hero compelling?

    Some judges find snarkiness in a Christian heroine to be inappropriate. Some judges find contest chuchy-talk in a heroine to be annoying.

    But some questions are fence-riders, which, by the way, just seems to me to be something that's gotta hurt. Especially if you were a guy.

    Is the narrative and dialogue balanced?

    Well, some judges like lots of introspection. Some judges feel too much introspection makes a story feel like it's being told through thoughts.

    Most contest scoresheet questions don't annoy me. But the one that asks "Is the author's voice fresh and unique?" just makes me want to hurl.

    I think we can safely say 99.9% of contest judges can't read an entry and describe the entrant's voice.

    I think we can safely say 99.9% of readers can't read a book and describe the author's voice.

    I'd much rather read a book or a contest entry where the author's voice is unobtrusive because then I'm into the story and not focusing on how fresh and unique the writer's voice is.

    Yet we see "Ls the entrant's voice fresh and unique?" on far too many scoresheets.

    Can anyone justify to me why that's a reasonable question to ask instead of "Is the entrant's voice compelling and/or unobtrusive?"

  16. Ruthy, I did say things last year after one of my LC entries got a 154 and a 97. I begged and begged for a discrepancy judge. Can't remember why the FHL board said no. I'm sure they had a good reason. The board is very open to comments to make the contest better. I really love the chapter and the contest so I don't mean to sound like I'm sour graping it. 'Cause I'm not.

    It's just these two entries that have such vast point differences between scores.

    I ought to add that overall I'm very pleased with the feedback the entrants are getting. The FHL members who are judging are amazing judges, and I think the training that RWA chapters and the main orgainzation does for their judges testifies to why the FHL members judge so well.

    And giving high scores isn't what I mean by judging well.

    With the two scoresheets that showed up yesterday, I actually thought the comments were nicely phrased, etc. But when I imputed the scores and saw how the other judge, bam, uggh.

    I need to do a better job of passing on my suggestions to the board.

  17. Back on that voice comment I made...

    I know a reader can figure out a dark, edgy voice verses a light, snarky one and a thought-provoking, literary one.

    But how fresher is one dark voice from another?

    Sherrilyn Kenyon is dark. So is Allison Brennen. So is JD Robb.

    So how do you start breaking down the greater distinctiveness...or even is there?

  18. Gina, sledgehammers can be quite useful, LOL!!!

    A lot of contests use the 'because that's the way we always did it..' excuse, but that's not necessarily in anyone's best interests.

    We had a Barclay coordinator, Vic Stark, who really took the Barclay from a no-name innocuous contest to a sought-after win. She was willing to entertain ideas, change things up, pimp the loops, whatever it took. I stepped into the void she left and had very little to change (except for allowing discrepancy judging based on point discrepancies.)

    But not all chapters are open to change.

    And contests are a huge responsibility.

    Keep at it, Cupcake. I have faith in you.


  19. Voice:

    Snarky humor Gina, Ruth

    Base Comedic: Mary

    Julie: Impertinent humor

    Janet: Dry humor

  20. Gina, Gina, you seem to have a teensy-weensy case of the TBL frazzles! And what's this--some judges STILL haven't turned in their score sheets???

    And . . . do I understand correctly that the TBL had only 2 judges per entry? I completely agree that there should always be at least 3. As for discrepancy judging, I almost think it should be based on the difference between the highest and lowest scores, not two consecutive scores.

  21. Gina, help yourself to some chocolate, honey.

    Tina, whack off a bit of that candy bar you've been hording. This girl has a serious need, LOL!

    Gina, you're right, but isn't part of our job as a judge to discern that voice?

    And I've had various judges tell me in the past few months that I have a strong, wonderfully developed voice that should be on binding, (published author) and one who just told me (the same work, different contest) my work was vague and could be made readable if I worked real hard. (unpublished author)


    Remember what Karen White said?

    If they either hate you or love you, at least you've gotten a reaction.

    And those low scores toughen us. They really do. We dig our toes into the sand and try harder.

    Hey, can I have a piece of that chocolate?


  22. No more comments from me until I finish judging. Gina, I'm one of the ones you're looking for.


    Singing off now.

  23. Ruthy, great post -- full of good advice and information. Thanks!

    Gina, I think it's wonderfull that you care so much about the entrants. That's what makes you an awesome coordinator. The judging thing reminds me of when I was teaching high school and we had to make up rubrics for evaluating pieces of writing. No matter how specific we tried to make them, the fact is judging writing is still a subjective process. I agree that a compelling voice is much easier to score than a fresh one.

  24. I like chocolate. :-)

    Even imaginary chocolate.

    Yeah I have the TBL frazzles, but if I were being honest to myself and y'all, I'd have to say the contest is getting the blame.

    I have 1,112 words left to cut on my Victorian to get it down to 75k so my agent can send it to Steeple Hill. Considering I've cut up to 314 with only 43 pages left, I'm feeling the burn.

    Only four scenes left.

    I really hate to cut anything from the first and the last of those because they're the hero's pov scenes. So that leaves me about a ton to cut from the heroine's scenes. I'm sweatin'.

  25. As always, Ruth, your advice is right on the money, delivered with grace and a dash of good humor. One of the toughest things about contests is remembering that each judge brings their own likes and dislikes to the table. Editors are the same, and ultimately, so are readers.

    I'm sure it's cliche by now, but those contest misses and rejection letters really do prepare you for later on. To stay in the game, you have to LOVE playing because those wins can be few and far between. But you'll never hit a home run if you stop swinging at the ball.

    Andrea Wilder

  26. Fabulous post, Ruthy! That has got to be one of the most innovative pieces of advice I've heard yet, but it's totally true!

  27. I remember one GH finalist (I can't remember if she won her category) who told the rest of us that she specifically wrote her GH finalling novel "to formula" for the Golden Heart contest.

    She sold that year and has continued to sell.

  28. Sorry for venting.

    I don't really hate contests or contest judges.

    The more I help coordinate a contest, the more I realize I don't know squat about contests and the best way to work them.


  29. Gina, just a suggestion on cutting. (I, who just cut 7k words!) I had Lindi, my cp (and an objective reader) read it for the first time and mark any scenes she thought could go--scenes that didn't feel like they were really moving the story forward. I didn't cut them the first time through (just pared down everything a little). But when I finished that pass-through, I still needed to cut 2500 more words. So I went and cut out those two or three whole scenes. I had maybe two events out of those scenes that were necessary to keep that I had to work in somewhere. It ended up being much more efficient to cut whole scenes--lots of words disappear at once! :)


  30. some interesting thoughts im late again cos my computer again went crazy this morning. Im beginning to think its not a morning computer!

  31. You're so right, Ruthy. Wow 'em as quickly as you can.

    Sorry I'm just now getting here. The life of a driven wanna-be, that's me. With two kids in softball and dance. You understand.