Monday, March 16, 2009

What I Learned While Judging the RITA Contest

Hi, all. Missy Tippens here. I was so thrilled to be able to enter the RITA™ Contest for the first time this year. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I attended my first RWA conference in New Orleans. (Wasn’t that about 2003?) I attended my first Golden Heart and RITA awards ceremony that year, and oh my gosh, I got stars in my eyes! Add to that, a couple of years ago I got to hold Tammy Alexander’s RITA statue. (It’s so heavy!) And after wiping my drool off it and handing it back to her, I found I had a humongous desire to hold my own someday!

So as soon as RWA posted entry forms, I entered my 2008 book, Her Unlikely Family, into the contest. [And just a quick bit of trivia. If you look in the RWR a few months ago at the photos of the new RWA office, and look at the photo of the RITA books on a shelf, mine’s in there! It just takes a magnifying glass and some imagination, and you’ll see it.] :)

So finally, to my point. I also just judged the contest for the first time. And it got me thinking about what I expect from a published book. Here are some things I learned while judging:

*The masters are the masters for a reason. It’s not dumb luck. And it’s not just being a big name. It’s because they know what they’re doing. And they consistently do it well. Also, they’re great storytellers. Of course, I can’t name names of books I judged. But I will say I had one book that was written by a New York Times best selling author, and it was spectacular. There was just something about it that made it a stand-out. I wish I could figure out what that something is and bottle it. Maybe it was heart. Maybe it was the endearing characters with their flaws and quirks. Maybe it was just the perfect word choices, the perfect snippets of dialogue (so clever). Maybe it was the great plot. Whatever “it” is, that book had it (like pretty much every book of that author that I’ve ever read). The author is a master, and I want to be like him/her when I grow up.

*All books are not created equal. And just because one got published doesn’t mean it’s a great book. Granted, there are all kinds of stories out there. There are all kinds of tastes out there. And I’m not going to love everything I read. But for judging a contest, I try to be objective and look for certain qualities I expect from a published book. First, great characters I can sympathize with. I don’t always relate to them, but I have to sympathize with them and like them at least a little. Oh, and they have to be heroic (even with their flaws). Second, the story has to draw me in. I have to worry about the characters and want to read on to find out what they’ll have to go through during the story to get their happy ending. Third, the story has to be well written. Don’t confuse me. Don’t yank me around. Don’t insult my intelligence. Don’t disappoint me at the end. I took an online class once about creating the fictional dream. The reader wants to stay in that dream. Anything that yanks a reader out of the story is a no-no. And fourth, make your antagonist/s earn his/their happy ending. Don’t throw in a character to conveniently solve everything for them. It’s so much more satisfying if the main guy and gal have to suffer and then win out in the end.

*Writing a good book is really, really hard. Okay, so I didn’t just learn that while judging. But I’ve been learning it, especially since selling my first book. And it gave me an appreciation for each book that I judged. Each of those authors struggled to put together the best story she could. Then she probably revised it, worked on line edits and copy edits, had input into the cover, and then started all over with a new book.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. And I’m so thrilled that I’m getting a chance! Now, if I could just write more like that NYT best seller… :)

Comments anyone? What do you think about books written by the big-name and best-selling authors? Do you find they stand out above the rest? (NO NAMES PLEASE, unless you’re saying something POSITIVE!)

His Forever Love, Steeple Hill Love Inspired, June 2009


  1. Missy, Wendy Lawton made a great point when she visited with her 10 near-fatal career mistakes: the one about dissing authors' works as weak and disrespecting the time and effort they put in to get published.

    I've learned that while every book isn't my cup of tea, it's probably much more a preference thing than an ability issue, which makes perfect sense.

    And the bestsellers I read... Love 'em. Even if one book strikes me more than another, I love the effort put in by those authors. Something clicks. There's a reason their stuff is well-read and widely accepted.

    And good luck to you and all Rita and GH entrants!!! You rock! It's gutsy to put your stuff out there in big-fish waters.

    I've got the coffee on. Dunkin Donuts coffee this morning. And they're supplying breakfast as well, a lovely tray of their morning delights. I'm grabbing a chocolate-covered cream-filled right now. Yum.


  2. Missy,

    I think you've made a great assessment of what it's like to write a book and also how it is as a reader.

    Yes, some of the books by "big name" authors turn out to be less than hoped for. However, most of the time I am not disappointed. Sometimes it is just the level of writing and the eloquence of it and the smooth transitions (these are hard for me and I notice when others do them well) that will nearly take my breath away. I think one example was by Deborah Raney here.

    I have to be careful because a truly excellent writer will sometimes discourage me from goals. I put the book down and say "I'll never be able to write like that!"

    Ruthie, thanks for the virtual doughnuts. I'm cutting back on eating real ones :)


  3. Missy,

    Great post. How many entries did you have to read to judge the contest?

    I've been disappointed by a favorite best selling author's work. I followed that author through category romance to mainstream but the author switched publishers & agents and I don't care the plot lines. The characterization is still excellent, I'm just not interested in the plots the author choses. Consequently, I haven't bought a book by this author in a long time.

    Here's where it's subjective: My best friend also liked this author and will admit a few of the new books aren't as good, continues to buy the books and read them!


  4. Missy, excellent post! I'm with you--winning a Rita is my dream, but the competition is sooooo stiff, starting right here in Seekerville! So while I dream, I also cling to my common sense.

    Occasionally a big-name author has disappointed me. Perhaps my expectations are higher too. But not often.

    Cathy, I've also been so awed by a book that reading it left me feeling discouraged. But if we take the time to study them, those books are great learning tools.

    Ruthy, I chose an apple fritter, my absolute favorte. Amazing considering they don't contain one smidgeon of chocolate. Thanks!


  5. Ruthy, thanks for feeding us this morning! I knew I could count on you. :)

    I like what you said about sometimes one book strikes you more than another and just seems to click. That's where taste comes in.

    Maybe what the award winning authors do is just click with a lot more people. Maybe something to consider in our writing? But how can we do that??

  6. Cathy, I've been right there with you! Deb Smith is one whose books have made me close the book at the ending and cry, saying I'll never be able to write like that!

    We just have to be inspired by that and not get discouraged. And then study them!

    And I agree, Deb Raney is one of those excellent examples.


  7. Rose, I read six books, I believe. (I don't have the score sheet nearby to check.)

    You know, part of writing is knowing that we're appealing to certain readers. I guess we take a risk if we decide to go in a totally different direction. But as a writer, we also need to write what we love to write since it is such hard work! :)

    I guess it's a reminder that we need to discover what we love to write and try to sell in that genre.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. I know, Janet!! Common sense flew out the window for me, though, when I held that trophy! LOL

    I like the idea of having a nice long career and having a chance every year for a shot at it. :)

    Of course, I was doing fine until Tina mentioned the date of the announcement! I had totally forgotten. :)

    I used to be on pins and needles the whole day of the Golden Heart announcements. Even though I've given Tina a hard time, I don't think the Rita will affect me like that, though. It's just an out-there dream at this point. Not something I've gotten my hopes up about.


  9. Good morning, Missy! Ah ... the Rita ... a subject that causes a flutter in all new author's hearts. The dream, the desire, the delusion! :)

    I agree with Ruthy that not every book, bestseller or no, is my "cup of tea," but they mostly all have have that star power that gets them to the Ritas. One of my past favorites (I say that because I try to read primarily Inspies these days) is bestselling author Nora Roberts, who can turn a phrase better than just about anybody I know. The woman wins a Rita every year, and with good reason.

    A contest judge once told me that a really good writer can say the most with the least amount of words (I guess that leaves me out since I tend to write 500-page books!). One of my favorite lines from one of Nora's books was one short sentence that conjured up an entire book of description for me. It went like this: "They were lace-curtain Irish, righteous as three popes." Ah, give that woman another Rita, please, because she sure can write!

    Great post, Missy!


  10. Love it, Julie! Thanks for sharing that great line. :)

    Have you ever read books by someone and just know they're really smart? Or you can tell they have an excellent sense of humor? Some writers can just pull out the perfect phrase or perfect word and draw such excellent word pictures.


  11. i really enjoy reading here at the Seekers. I'm just a WIT (writer in training) but i love the wealth of information that is found here.

    i definitely have favorite authors whom i will buy just knowing the book was written by them. i've been "burned" once or twice - but if that happens, i still buy the next book in the hopes that the disappointing one was an aberration. i guess i use the "three strikes and you're out" process when buying books by fave authors.


  12. Great comments, Missy! Excellent four point scoresheet. Later this year, I'm judging a pubbed contest and I needed something to give me a guideline to base my score instead of merely relying on my emotional impression.

    Ruthy, while I agree preferences often sway readers more than the "ability issue" of the writer (aka, written well), some pubbed books aren't...well, I'm not going to say they suck (I'd never be so blunt), but I will say put the name of an unpublished author on the manuscript and I seriously doubt the publisher would have bought it. In particular, I'm thinking of a trio of regencies I read back in January.

    The fact those books didn't make any best-seller list is a fair indication that "ability issue" rules over preference. My guess is the publisher knew libraries would buy the books because they carry the bajillion other books the author wrote. Sucky books. Probably the worst I've read by a multi-published author.

    I can think of another best-selling author whose first few books were solid reads, middle books were great, and latter ones who are so filled with historical inaccuracies that readers are blog-ocally complaining. The author won a RITA a couple years ago with one of the best books I think she's ever written. The next year she was nominated again for a book that I'm still wondering what the plotline was. Leads had to have individual story goals, right?

    Books like those make stumble on my path to publication.

    I totally--finally--understand the reason behind writers not complaining about other writers' stuff. Thanks, Ms. Lawton, for explaining it in a manner my stubborn, opinionated brain could finally understand.

    Writers aside, I'm still a firm believer that readers must express their like or dislike for a novel. Purchase power is one way. Blogs, websites, word-of-mouth, writing to publishers are others. Yes, I know no author wants to hear criticism of her work, but the consumer should expect quality work for her dollar...and time spent consuming.

    My best friend also liked this author and will admit a few of the new books aren't as good, continues to buy the books and read them!

    While I don't agree with Rose's friend's behavior, I kinda do understand it.

    People generally are loyal. When things go bad, we hope they'll change for the better until something happens that breaks our confidence. Whether it's books or tv shows. See, we'll tolerate dislikable episodes or character until the show jumps a shark or adds annoying secondary characters, etc. Right now I'm completely done with Dr. Cuddy's baby situation on HOUSE. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I resent her having a child. Don't like Thirteen either. If I didn't love House as desperate as a gal can love a man shares all his thoughts (the rude ones, anyway), I'd quit the show. House is the Jeter of tv medical dramas.

    On the let's-say-something-positive side, I read two Joy Fielding books last month. Fabulous! I've recommended them more than once to folks who I know enjoy suspense. Especially my sister because she's not into romance novels.

    I read the first 16 pages of Jordan Dane's Evil without a Face. Amazing book! Amazing writer! I'm waiting for a day when I don't have anything else to do because I want to read it non-stop.

    What hooks me with Fielding's novels and the Dane one I started. To use the latter book as an example, by page 16 I cared about the lead character(s), cared about their plight, cared to know what happens to them and how they solve the problems. At least by page 16. Maybe sooner.

    The two other fiction books on my To Be Read pile are Mulberry Park by Judy Duarte and Better than Gold by Laurie Alice Eakes. I have high expectations for both.

  13. Good morning ladies.

    I am now on my fifteenth week of not being able to sleep, ever since Daylight Savings Time started. And no, I'm not interested in being told Daylight Savings Time only started a couple of weeks ago.

    It feels like fifteen weeks so it IS fifteen weeks.

    Which makes me cranky and it's probably a good thing I'm done with my Rita judging. I had nice books this year. Not earth shaking, but solid, all of them. I think it's really hard to judge this contest, with it's straight number scoring, no comments...although what would be the point of giving revision suggestions when the book is obviously (duh) already published, so I guess I understand it.

    What it usually boils down to for me is, "Is this a Rita Winner?" Is this one that is thte very best of the best?

    If it isn't, I give it a seven. Figuring that will take it out of contention without being unkind.

    All I'm really doing ultimately is this the one. If my answer is Yes it gets the top score. If it's No, it gets a seven. There's some variation on that, but in a nutshell, that's my policy...
    If I'd just them now, when I'm tired and cranky, I'd have probably dropped the seven to a TWO, which is all about me and Daylight Savings Time and fair at all.

  14. Exhaustion has also, obviously, stolen my ability to spell.

    I'll add here, too, I've never seriously considered attending the RWA conference. Quite of few of you have, haven't you? So, is that fun? Is it worth it? Do you recommend it?
    For right now, it's about one week before ICRS, which will be in Denver this year, not sure if I'll be there, but last year my publisher sent me. So if I go there, no way can I go to RWA, too, which makes it simple to decide. Still, it's very intriguing. I'd like to go someday.

  15. WooHoo Gina!!! House ALL the way. I love that character...Sigh.

    Great post Missy! You're so right about Bestsellers. Not saying I like them all, but most of them DO have an indefinable quality that hooks me into the story. Even if I don't care for the writing, I might still keep reading to find out what happens.

    Best of wishes with the RITA! :-)

  16. Did someone mention apple fritters?

    I'll make a bunch sometime. It's my job in real life, too.

    Anyway, I feel like an 8th grader among the seniors sometimes with all the published peeps and award winning peeps here!

    As for authors -- I am an eclectic reader. I figured out what I like is a tight POV where you feel like you are there in the events. Two that come to mind for me are "Day of the Jackal" by Frederick Forsyth and "The Caine Mutiny" by ... someone. Herman Walk? Even though they are events I could never participate in, the close POV made me as a reader feel like I was there. The Jackal was super creepy BTW.

    I guess I'm looking for the "Calgon, Take Me Away" feeling ;-)

  17. I just this morning finished reading A Face at the Window by Sarah Graves. It's book 12 in her Home Repair is Homicide series and it is fantastic.

    Why is it fantastic? For a lot of the reasons you mentioned, Missy. The heroine is someone I would hang out with, whom I would be glad to know. Her problems were real and the solution to them difficult--nearly impossible--to attain. She was heroic, self-sacrificing, and scared spitless most of the time.

    Also, the world of the character was so real. The story is set in Eastport, Maine, where the author lives, and I'm sure if I visited there, I would know just where the hardware store, the Waco Diner, and the courthouse complete with cannon on the lawn would be.

    I love it when an author delivers on the promise they make. And Sarah Graves delivered for the 12th time with A Face in the Window.

    I was pretty happy to get to the end and read a blurb that said she was working on book 13. :)

    And I wish you all the best in the RITA. How super cool would holding one of those awards be?

  18. DebH,

    Thanks for commenting! I've had books I've read that disappoint me sometimes, too. But I usually give the author more chances as well, especially if I've loved previous books.

    It's scary to think about writing more and more books! Will the second be as good? The third?? The fifteenth? I think it's what makes writers half crazy. :) I know it makes me crazy to worry about my second one about to come out.

  19. Gina,
    You made a great point about speaking your opinion about books and also about speaking with buying dollars as well

    Oh, and House. Love the show!! Although some of the plot lines get really out there or frustrating. But I'm the same with House himself. Love him. Love to hate him. :) Record every episode.

    Also, thanks for the book recommendations!


  20. Mary, I'm sorry you and your cute little bunny ears are cranky.


    One thing that helps me in scoring is where the Rita score sheet says a score of 5 is for an average book. For me, that's an easy thing to decide. We know average books when we read them. And then there are those books that jump and grab us by the throat and won't let go. Those are the 9's. I love to get those!! (And in the Golden Heart as well. Love to get those manuscripts.)

    Mary, I love going to RWA! You need to try it if it'll work in your schedule.

  21. Thanks, Jessica! I'm not holding out hope (got all these Seekers I have to compete against!), but am just thrilled to finally get to enter after so many years of writing and entering the GH. :)

  22. Ann,

    I don't think I've read either of those books. I'll have to do so.

    I also love deep POV and those Calgon moments. It's why I get so into books that my kids have to physically grab a book out of my hand to get my attention! Talk about a jolt back to reality. LOL

  23. Thanks, Erica!

    It's amazing that an author can keep you hooked through a series like that. I know there are a lot who do it (Debbie Clopton comes to mind). An amazing talent to keep each book fresh and to keep us waiting for the next book like Sarah Graves did for you. (I need to read one of hers!)

    You know, your comment about the heroine being someone you'd hang out with is such a good point! I read Act Two by Kimberly Stuart, and kept thinking that I would love to hang out with the author! LOL It made me feel as if I she was someone I'd like to be friends with. (And I guess I felt the same about the character as well.)

    That's a real gift to be able to write like that.


  24. Hi Missy:

    I can forgive an author who writes a book that fails if she was challenging herself by writing a more complex and ambitious work. What I don’t like is when the book is safe and predictable and could have been written by any competent author. An author once told me candidly, “don’t even read that book, it was written to meet a deadline. My next book was back to form.”

    I often have the experience of reading a passage and thinking, “I could never write something this good” and it can be discouraging until I tell myself, “Well, then don’t write like that. Write something only you could have written and make it good enough to publish.”

  25. Since we're talkng books that engage...

    Last week I read a Genesis entry for someone wanting to exchange chapters. First scene was a lead character telling another character about something horrid that had just happened. Second scene didn't add at all to characterization or main plot. Third scene was talking about what happened in the second scene.

    Yet despite that the story had an amzing potential to have a dynamic first 15 pages. An ideal short category for Steeple Hill.

    I told the gal to read Her Unlikely Family as a great example of how to focus the opening chapters on the lead characters and their conflict.

    I'm really hoping she forgoes reading my possible Genesis entry and spends the next week tweaking her opening.

    Needless to say, darlin', I'm pulling for ya to have a RITA final. Well, not just you...

  26. The tricky part of the Rita for inspy authors is that it's not categorized. So my short sweet historical is up against Karen Kingsbury's heart wrenching contemporary and Camy Tang's sassy chick lit and Debby Guisti's romantic suspense.
    Very tough to get through all that variety.

  27. I think I'll give sweet granddaughter Elle a break and change the picture back...maybe if I get a shot WITHOUT PINK EARS. I'll go back to her.

  28. Vince,

    Once again, you've stretched my thinking! Thanks for your wise words. I hadn't even considered that some books are playing it safe. Very interesting point.

    Also, I love your take on writing our own perfect lines. I guess that's all each of us is called to do.

  29. Gina, you're too sweet! I appreciate you passing along my book.

    I'm working on the opening for my third book today (doing revisions), and I'm just not happy with it yet! I was in the kitchen fixing lunch a few minutes ago, walking around while the microwave hummed, asking, "What's missing, what's missing??" (Yes, I talk out loud to myself.)

    Ahhhh!!!!!! This is driving me up the wall! Can I send it to you and you can tell me what's missing?

  30. Mary! I miss the pink ears already!!! She's just too darn cute.

    You're so right about all the inspy books being lumped in together. It makes it really difficult. That's a great thing about ACFW's Book of the Year contest--all those inspy categories.


  31. Missy, just shoot someone. That's what Mary would do!

    Great post today. Pretty much the same way I judge GH entries.

  32. You could at least TRY gunfire, Missy. I mean you can always delete it in the unlikely event it doesn't solve all your book's problems.


  33. Missy, thanks for sharing your RITA judging experience. I love the points you made--esp. about the masters being masters for a reason.

    Congrats on entering this year. What a milestone in your career. Good luck to all the Seekers!

  34. Okay, Pam and Mary. I'll follow your advice and throw in gunfire--as my grieving heroine walks into the church for the kids' Christmas pageant rehearsal. LOL!

    Anne, thanks! No matter what happens, it's been very exciting just to enter.

  35. Missy,

    Absolutely, I agree with you every word! There is a reason the top dogs stay on top -- and it's usually because they can tell a great story.

    Like Ruthy said, the best sellers may not be my taste, but if you dissect them, they have all the elements of attention-grabbing appeal.

    And of course, our Seekers are very well written and occupy box seats at the top of the arena : ) Good luck to you, Missy and all the other Seekers entered in the Rita!

  36. Thanks, Audra!! I'm hoping we'll be celebrating someone here in Seekerville--either GH or Rita!


  37. Missy, I'm up to my ears in frustration with my manuscript so if you still want someone to look over your chapter, e-mail it to me.

    I seriously need to look at something not set in the past.

  38. Gina, thanks for offering! I'll send it later--after I type in the most recent changes.


  39. Ann, you make apple fritters! Now you've got me craving them. Please bring me one next time you're in Seekerville!


  40. Hi Everyone,
    Coming up for air after a book deadline, I picked up Harlan Coben's THE WOODS. Coben's my favorite suspense author, and THE WOODS is a fantastic story. For me, reading great prose is a thrill. Of course, I drool, wishing I could be as intense, focused, creative, savvy, etc. Makes me want to work harder.

    IMHO, every RITA finalist is a winner. The competition is fierce. Mary's right. All the insy books are lumped together so the category books can get lost in the crowd. Although Steeple Hill had a winner last year!

  41. Hey, Debby! It's great to see your face again! :)

    Congrats on finishing the book!


  42. Well you easterners are probably already in bed, but I did enjoy the post Missy and the comments. I'm sure the fritters are all gone which is a good thing.

    When I judge, my criteria for top scores is if I don't want to quit reading after the third chapter. If I find it hard to pick back up, well.......

    But its tough because reading is sooooo subjective. Haven't you given a friend a book and said this is a MUST and then they didn't like it? And maybe its the subject. One of my favorite authors wrote a book I couldn't read. I always just automatically pick up her books when they come out but when I got home and discovered it was about a woman dealing with her mother's bout with cancer, I couldn't read it since I had just experienced that myself with my mother. Had nothing to do with her ability as a writer.

    So the message I guess is to write from the heart. Surely you will touch another's heart and hopefully that will be an editor.

  43. You're so right about everything you said, Missy. But one more thing I have found is that, even if a book has some flaws, if I really like the story, that's all it takes for me to love the book. Maybe the prose doesn't flow that well, but the story is interesting and exciting.

    I don't know if that even makes sense! Anyway, sorry I missed your post!