Friday, August 8, 2008

The Ultimate Empathizer by Donnell Bell-Guestblogger

Today we have another guestblogging contest coordinator. I had a wonderful time working with Donnell when she coordinated the Daphne. I am SO thrilled that she's coming back to coordinate that stellar contest. And, I'm excited for you all to get to know her more today here on Seekerville. Isn't her pooch cute!?

With that, I'll turn the table over to Donnell....



The Ultimate Empathizer

There’s an Indian proverb that says, “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Good proverb, sage advice, and one I respect. Especially when it comes to contests. You see, when it comes to contests, I am the ultimate empathizer. I’ve been an entrant, a judge and finally a coordinator. So, if someone says to me, “You can’t understand,” be careful. I just might surprise you.

On being a Contestant:

My first contest, a brand new fiction writer, I entered the EMILY. That’s right. One of RWA®’s most prestigious contests. I’d come from a nonfiction background and I was pretty sure I was Pulitzer Prize winning material. I entered Loving Montana. Oh my gosh, it was brilliant writing. It contained every adverb known to man; switched POV so many times even my characters marked me down; and listed so much critical research and back story, to this day I’m still astounded I didn’t final!

But perhaps the silliest thing these Emily judges marked me down for was …get this. I didn’t have a hero. Can you believe it? On the score sheet that said on a scale of one to five, how appealing do you find the hero …two of my judges gave me zeros. One judge, out of the goodness of her heart, gave me a one. And I’ll never forget what this gracious lady said on the score sheet. … “Your writing is good. I wanted to mark you up, but we never see a hero. You need a hero. Is there a hero?”

That’s been a while and her comment still makes me laugh. So when I say I’ve been there, I have. I’ve made every mistake known to contests. What did I do about it? I honed my craft. These days before I enter, I study the score sheet, keep a grip on my galloping POV and now very nearly always include a hero.

I also learned the “alleged” rules of Romance. Now if I break them I do so deliberately. By the way, to those Emily judges. You rock!

On being a Judge:

At a chapter meeting, and again a brand new writer, one of my chapter mates asked, “Donnell, will you judge the contest I’m coordinating?” I shuffled my feet and scratched my chin and replied, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m qualified.”

She said, “You read, don’t you?”

Yes, I read. And reading does NOT qualify you to be a contest judge. Contest judges know the so-called rules; they also know when to ignore them. Contests judges know when someone’s written a compelling tale – it’s one that makes them “feel,” and for days after, they’re still thinking about that entry and crossing their fingers that it sells. Judges understand POV, understand when an entrant is head hopping, and also understand when the POV switches work. Contest judges acknowledge that an entry is somebody’s baby, somebody’s hard work she’s entrusted to you, and understand that just maybe this is a brand new writer whose spirit can be easily crushed.

Further, contest judges know that out there, some frazzled volunteer coordinator is counting on them to make that deadline, to make those kind-but-honest comments and to take the same kind of pride in judging that that oh-so-nervous contestant has done in entering.

On being a Coordinator:

For those who know me the term Mama Lion doesn’t do justice. I’m protective of my entrants, protective of my judges, protective of the coordinators I work with and very aware of the reputation of the contest I coordinate. If you enter, I ask you to follow the rules. If you judge, I beg you to follow the instructions and meet the deadline. No, you don’t get paid. Yes, it’s from the goodness of your heart. But it does earn you undying gratitude, and esteem from your colleagues in this field.

All three areas to my contest life involved a learning process. I’ve been there. When you bomb in a contest or miss finaling by a hair’s breadth, I’ve been there. When you judge the entry from hell, and worry this person will never write again because you found no redeeming value in the work, but you tried, I’ve been there. When a judge goes silent and refuses to communicate, or an agent or editor is too overworked and forgets they agreed to judge, I’ve been there, also.

I am the ultimate empathizer. What’s more, I tip my hat to all you wonderful people aiming for the stars who empathize, too.

Donnell Ann Bell is published in nonfiction, an award-winning writer and a 2007 Golden Heart® finalist. She also has held most every committee position on the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense contest, This year she returns as the Overall Coordinator for the Daphne. Check out her joint blog, or her web page,


  1. Donnell, welcome to Seekerville, sweet cheeks.

    Good to have you here, and the dog is the epitomy of 'so homely he's cute', which is NOT intended as an insult, because he (she) is adorable.


    You've totally messed with my little inside running joke about people resembling their dogs because you are drop dead lovely and that's reason enough to hate you right there, but I'll try to assuage those feelings by eating lots of chocolate. And sighing. And avoiding mirrors for the day. Maybe the week.


    Great, great contest. I had fun with you guys at KOD a couple of times and the judging was phenomenal...

    Finaling was even better, but the judge's comments were direct, spot-on and thorough. No one slacked, and that always makes an entrant feel good.

    And I totally empathize with your empathy...

    Most contest coordinators have seen it all, dealt with it all (right, Camy???) and have stories to tell. I distinctly remember one lawsuit for tainted judging because an entrant didn't final, one threat of a lawsuit, a category coordinator who totally neglected her category, entries that made Mary blush, entries that made ME blush, and someone who thought the contest was a third-grade writing assignment.

    But way more than that, I appreciate that overwhelmingly (what a bad word, but it works)almost everyone I've worked with in contests was devoted, industrious, respectful and careful.

    And timely, thank God.

    So Donnell, congrats to you and KOD for a wonderful job, as always. Your hard work and persistence is a blessing to all the inhabitants of Unpubbed Island. Hats off to you, kid.


    Oh, oh, oh, where would we be without food??????

    Okay, you guys totally cleaned up on the peanut-butter cup brownies yesterday. Good job.

    Since it's Friday and Starbucks is busily trying to re-organize their sales days by offering freebies and $2.00 drinks after 2 PM, I've invited them to do the morning coffee/espresso/latte/cappucino bar while I supply the stuffed croissants...

    Almond. Nutty. Chewy. Sweet.

    Cherry, in honor of cherry-picking season across the northern U.S.

    Cheese, in honor of... Cheese.

    Dig in, gals, and blessings on all of you this Friday.

  2. Ruthy had Seekerville catered?

    I thing it's time. Yes, very nice.

    Great post, Donnell. And I met Ruthy through the Daphne (or were you just involved in the Daphne when I met you some other way, Ruthy) so, even though she was heartless, I remember the Daphne fondly.

  3. Barclay Sterling, you goof.

    And yes I'm heartless.

    And don't you dare breathe a word otherwise. Once people figure out you're a soft touch, the expectations rise and then it's nothing but work, work, work...

    (Princess Bride, kind of)

    And I had Starbucks cater the drinks assemblage, but I did the croissants.

    Because I love you THAT much.



  4. The Barclay Sterling was my first brush with Ruthy. I didn't quite know what to make of her. She was sweet, but wait, was she making fun of me? Yes, she was, and I deserved it, since I entered the contest, then wrote back and asked if I could change something. I think I forgot and left my name on it or something like that and had to resend it. I can't remember now. I'm sure she thought I was a goofball. Or had early onset Alzheimers. But then, she judged my entry and she was the only judge who liked it! LOL! It was pretty rough back then. I was still wet behind the ears, never even heard of GMC, even though it was only a couple of years ago. Does that mean I'm still wet behind the ears? A person can learn a lot in two and a half years!

  5. Oh, and I forgot to say that all contest coordinators are saints to me, so Donnell, you rock! I definitely appreciate contest coordinators and all they have to do and put up with.

    What is with Blogger, making me type in my username and password the last two days?

  6. Good morning, gang! Sorry I wrote into the wee hours and I overslept (gasp). Ruth, I remember you from the Daphne and I'm honored to be in your company today. Such talent I'm exposed to. And ahem on Coach, Coach is the most beautiful dog inside and out. At Christmas last year, he got ran over. The poor guy who backed up without seeing him was in a terrible state, but so was Coach. He's doing well now. So he's not only beautiful, he's a champ.

    And, please don't get me started on Starbucks. I just got back from Seattle fom a visit with my daughter. I know they closed 200 stores??? But I think I helped the stock. I had to stop at at least 50 in the Northwest.

    Thanks for having me, Seekers, and Cheryl, another woman I judged in Colorado Romance Writers and wrote her to say who are you and why aren't you published? I'm happy to say she did something about it. ;)

  7. Welcome Donnell! You're right on target: It takes more than just being a reader to judge a contest.

    A reader might know that a story doesn't work for her, but she might not have a clue how to explain it on the scoresheet.

    A seasoned judge can explain POV problems, or the need for a hero, or explain how to incorporate the beginnings of a GMC for the main characters in those opening scenes.

  8. Pam, I'm so glad you agree. Believe it or not, many don't. Readers know why they love a story, it makes them feel. But do they know why they're feeling. Do the characters resonate? Does the setting real them in. Is the backstory written in in such a way that it doesn't make them want to lie down and take a nap :) There's so much to this writing biz that we have learned by trial and error; would you agree?

  9. Donnell, really great blog. I've been there too, as a judge and a contestant. One of my favorite thank you's last year came from one of the horrible entries I judged. They're the hardest to judge (and to read), but probably the most important, because they're the people who enter because they want feedback.

  10. Welcome to Seekerville Donnell!

    It sounds like Champ is a champ.

    I think my first brush with Ruthy was the Barclay too. I think she thought I was a nutcase for entering like 6 or 7 mss. But I was just trying to figure out which mss to ditch and which to move forward with. Turns out they all bombed I think. LOL!

    STARBUCKS!!! If they all close...I'll hyperventillate...

    We only have one within a hundred mile radius as it is...and Micky D's coffee just isn't the same.

    Donnell did you go to RWA? Anything new?


  11. Edie, thanks for stopping by. I've received thank you notes from newby writers too. And I have to tell you those are the ones that mean the most to me. A newby writer doesn't know the rules, they just know they want to tell a story. If you want my dander up, give me a cruel judge.

    Renee Ryan wrote an article on subtext for The Five Scribes recently that spoke about feelings being transmitted onto your manuscript. I wonder sometimes if a judge's disappointment or resentment doesn't come through on a contest entry. Like e-mail or blogs, I think we need to be very aware of how words can *hurt* They are powerful. The can encourage a writer to go up that tough mountain or they can totally send the entrant to a shredder where they'll never write again. I certainly don't want that on my shoulders.
    How about you?

  12. Cheryl, you entered seven manuscripts? And didn't go bankrupt. I've been meaning to ask if I can borrow some money. ;)

    Re: Starbucks, my daughter took me to the flagship store in Seattle. I bought one of the original coffee cups. I'm hoping it will be worth some money one day and will pay for my writing habit. Think I stand a chance?

  13. Great blog, Donnell. Love your first contest story. Sort of like mine. I'd published in medical/nursing journals. I'd written a doctoral dissertation, so how hard could writing fiction be? LOL LOL I entered my first contest expecting the judges to immediately recognize talent being surprised only by Nora. I KNEW some judge would forward my entry directly to her editor and say, "You have to read this. It's incredible. You'll thank me for finding this undiscovered gem."

    Needless to say, that's not what happened. POV? Had no idea what that was. In my first attempt at fiction, there were at least five different POV's in the first 10 pages (2 of them being dogs).

    Donnell is a superstar of contest coordinators. The Daphne runs so smoothly it appears effortless, which is of course ridiculous. She works her fanny off!

    Great blog, Donnell

  14. Ah, Cyndi, thanks! Sheila Connolly has been OC and she's done a great job. She's had some wonderful promos to attract entrants. But the real gems behind this contest are the coordinators. Just to name a couple, Cee Dunsheath and Kelly Ann Riley, who run published, they are amazingly organized and conscientious. Love your story about your first contest. I'll bet there's some doosies out there.

  15. Donnell, thanks so much for being here in Seekerville today! It's great to see you again. :)

    No hero??!!! LOL!!! How funny. Reminds me of some of my own entries. :)

    The Daphne is a great contest and very well-run. You've done an amazing job!

  16. Donnell, glad you got a chance to sleep in, even inadvertantly. An extra ninety winks now and again is a wonderful thing.

    And Coach is beautiful. How could anyone not love that face? I love a hound dog look too, so sad, so misunderstood. (Yeah, I know Coach isn't a hound dog, but the faces just tug your heart...)Men with a hound dog look grab my interest, as long as the look isn't pervasive... A little hound dog goes a long way, LOL! And pouting boys are only cute in pre-school.

    So, Donnell, give us the skinny on judges. Any you particularly love working with?

    In my corner I've been honored to work with Kate Seaver from Berkley. Kate was always approachable, funny and delightfully normal. Alicia Condon from Dorchester was the same, ready, willing and able to judge, fun to chat with and open to new things. Esi Sogah of Avon not only judged, she offered the finalists specific advice. That's going the extra mile. And we had a lot of requests for fulls from these judges and that's a great benefit for finalists.

    For inspies, Steeple Hill editors have always been accessible, timely and willing to go the extra mile. Joan Marlowe Golan is grace personified, and her editors know their stuff, representing a house whose willingness to welcome new authors goes unsurpassed.

    annE Goldsmith from Grand Central (formerly: you name it, they've used it at Warner Books) is also a peach to work with, always on top of things, willing to work with new authors. Great gal. Cindy DiTiberio from Avon and Amanda Bostic from WestBow were also right on top of things, although both of their houses tend to look for experienced authors.

    And we ended up with at least one published author out of Barclay 2007, and as you can see, a whole boatload of now published Seekers came through our inspy corner in '06 and '05...


    Hey, I've got sandwiches coming from Subway...

    Jared's actually planning to stop by and build our subs for us. You go, Jared! Lookin' great, my man...



    Which is how this little band of merry women met. Contests, coffee and conferences. Not a bad combination at all.

  17. Missy, those judges were just nitpicking, don't you think? Hero indeed! Very nice to see you again. ;)) And re the Daphne, I have a LOT of help, but I do try to pull my weight. They let me know if I'm slacking!

    Ruth, you ask a tough question! At the risk of leaving out some fantastic final round judge, I'll veer somewhat away from your question. A great final round judge is someone who notes the timeframe, and notes his or her schedule. As we all know final round judges evaluate on a whole other level and are looking for that diamond in the rough. If they request something from the Daphne, I know that partial is darn good! Editors/agents aren't known for making comments, they'll blunt and to the point, because they simply have no time!

    I constantly remind first round judges they are judges and not editors and agents and never assume that something won't sell or someone won't like something based on hearsay about the market.

    I'm also blessed to have had great final round judge coordinators like Lois Winston and Allison Brennan. So truly, these ladies would be better qualified to answer that question. A lot of expertise goes into the Daphne. I still refer to Lois's *Was* article and *Are you qualified to be a Contest Judge?* They are timeless.

    And you're so right. Like the members of the Seekers, I've made some longstanding friendships from contest coordinating. It's been a win/win situation.

  18. Pamela coming in, bowing at Donnell's feet. I recently finaled in and won the overall unpublished Daphne. Of course, I'm highly prejudiced about the Daphne, but WOW it's been a ride. Donnell is all that. I posted recently on a loop, and after she saw my tag line she emailed me privately to offer congratulations and such. It gave me an opportunity to thank her for coordinating the contest, and I'm not passing up the chance to thank her publicly and to praise the value of contests. If not for people like Donnell, the unpublished masses wouldn't have the chance to get their pages in front of some of the best editors and agents in the business. Even if we don't final, the judges comments can take us one step closer to a saleable manuscript.

    Pamela backing from the room, hat in hand and a smile on her face. :-)

    Pamela Kopfler
    2008 Daphne du Maurier Award
    Overall Winner Unpublished

  19. Awesome post! I loved all of it, but what you wrote about judging is wonderful and something I'll remind our judges next year. You Rock!

  20. Donnell:

    Are you crazy!!!! OC again???? Okay, you can do it only if your writing time isn't compromised. Seriously. I mean it. your family will understand...
    Okay, maybe they won't.

    I understand the pull Daphne has. A great contest produces great writers. Editors who seek out these writers. (Ah-hemmmm, contest entrants, don't forget to include entering the Daphne in your query letters. Even if you don't final, apply that one nugget a judge gave you, your mss has improved. Editors know this.)

    Donnell, stop reading this and get back to work. You rock!


  21. Thanks, Pamela, Vicki and Sue. Sue, I don't sleep. :) And I can't help but write. My manuscript is coming along although I did find myself in serious research mode :) Also I found that keeping busy actually helped me allocate my time better; does that make sense? And the Daphne is by far the project I feel most passionate about. But thanks for wanting to protect me. You rock too!

  22. Hey, Mama Lion!

    Enjoyed reading your story and I're as beautiful inside as out.

    I've entered a couple of contests, received both positive and negative feedback and I've been a judge giving both kinds of feedback. Difficult to be on the receiving end and defitely hard (for me) to give out comments that might dash the heart of an eager newbie. What I've found helps is the subtext of the comments. Criticism given with a helpful energy will be perceived as positive and will do the job. Donnell and her Daphne judges know this and embrace it. They are truly interested in helping other writers.

    Blessings, D!

  23. Donnell, I would have double the ulcers and 100 percent gray hair if I tried to coordinate or judge a contest.

    Makes me feel queasy just thinking about it.

    But a stuffed croissant and some black coffee are just what my jangled nerves need.

  24. Cheryl, thanks for letting us meet Donnell.

    Donnell - It's wonderful to meet someone who's been there and can speak from experience from all sides.

    I'm a contest baby - or is that a baby contestant? Hmm

    I've heard so many stories of making mistakes that I tend to wait until the last possible day to enter. I tweak and check and worry. Then I worry that the power will go down and I won't get my entry out in time. :-)

    My writing group (the Saskatchewan Romance Writers), hosts the 'We Dare You' contest but I haven't considered myself qualified to judge so I haven't volunteered.

    I congratulate you on the time you've spent encouraging writers.

  25. Misty, Ann And Anita Mae, thanks for posting ;) I wish I could say what I do is because I'm completely altruistic LOL. Such isn't the case, I promise you. I want to know the market, I want to see what's out there and I want to connect with all of you wonderful people. Don't think you have it in you to be a contest coordinator, well volunteer to be a judge. The Daphne has a training program, most contests do. It's the honor system of course, we're on line, but if you take your job seriously, and you read the lectures and articles, you do get a god grasp on what makes a good judge.

    Entering? It takes confidence and nerves of steel, but it does prepare you for the next step where those editors and agents aren't going to be near as kind (many are, don't get me wrong, but some aren't). That's why I ask our judges to follow the motto: Judge as you would like to be judged.

    Seekers, does that slogan fit your blog? It fits my life just perfectly. To offer honest criticism in a positive format to an open-minded entrant practically guarantees that entrant will keep writing. Moreover that entrant will speak highly of your contest and it's highly possible you'll see this person advance and ideally become published.

    My! I do go on and on! Sorry :)

  26. Great post, Donnell. The Daphne is lucky to have you! :-)

  27. Thank you, Therese, I've been so thrilled to learn about your awesome news as well! Now this person's deserving!

  28. Donnell, loved your blog. I have the ultimate confidence in you. Give Coach a smouch for me. What cutie!

  29. Excellent, Donnell! I am soooo not surprised.

  30. Great post, Donnell!

    I found myself nodding along with your stories and smiling at my own memories.

    Good news for the Daphne that you're back. :)

  31. Thanks for having me today, Seekers, and all you wonderful bloggers who dropped by. My apologies if I forgot anyone! Mary Connealy, of course I remember your informative blog you did for the Five Scribes on the new generation of Christian writing and your excellent examples.

    One final note about the Daphne and the Inspirational category, which I urged KOD to bring to this contest. It's been a success. After reading Authors such as Brandilyn Collins and then wowed when judging people like Cheryl Wyatt and thinking this is great work! Christian publishers are evolving and reaching out to the secular market and truly *inspiring.*

    On a final note, I had the pleasure of judging Daphne published Inspirational this year. I read Debbie Giusti, Lyn Cole, Marlo Schalesky among others. These authors are forces to be reckoned with and look forward to reading Mary's Petticoat Ranch and Calico Canyon and Renee Ryan's The Marshall takes a Bride when it comes out in February.

    Thank you again! Happy writing!

  32. Donnell~

    The Daphne was the first contest I ever judged and working with you was a pure pleasure. I have co-chaired The Sheila and know all the problems that go along with it. I've also entered, won, and even tanked in several contests. It's been a good experience all around.

    You pretty much hit every nail on the head, Donnell. Great blog.

    Robin :)

  33. I'm glad you empathize with entering contests. Been entering since January of this year and was finally selected as a finalist last month. I was also told once my hero was introduced early enough. Live and learn. Well, I've found 10 different ways a story can't work even if it's a rockin' story. I keep plugging away hoping someone gets my humor! Hope springs eternal I'll won someday.

  34. Hey Donnell, lots of great insight here. How come I've never met your dog? You must hide that cute thang when we descend upon you!