The Writer’s Journey Through Judgment

Last week I submitted the score sheets for the entrants I judged in the Phoenix Rattler writing contest. I’m one of the preliminary judges. That means I got to score the first ten pages of two manuscripts out of many, many entered as part of the first level of competition. The manuscripts that make it through this level will go on to be judged by some pretty big-name agents and publishing house editors.

This is my second year as a Rattler judge. I’ve found it terribly fun.

But it’s also a little nerve-wracking and guilt-inducing. You see, here I am, Ms. Anonymous, judging ten pages of a manuscript – and if that manuscript isn’t quite up to snuff I have to be honest about it. I have to say when something isn’t working. I have to give a “from one to ten” score on a whole slew of elements, and sometimes those numbers lean much closer to one than ten.

I realize this isn’t a make-it-or-break-it situation for the authors I’m judging. But it sure feels that way. I am getting a taste of what it’s like for those agents and editors who are the make-it-or-break-it judges for manuscripts submitted to them. Ten pages, and that’s all you get to wow me. Ten pages, and if I say no, you go no farther.

It has given me more respect for those agents and editors, too. I can now imagine what it’s like doing this day in and day out. I can see why they don’t give personal responses to submissions. As I marked the score sheet for one entrant, I couldn’t help but imagine their reaction to the low numbers. I could all but hear the protest and the tears. And it hurt.

I want to be an encourager to new writers! I don’t want to dash dreams! I’m quite sure that is how all agents and editors feel. Or at least the largest part of them. (Maybe there are a few power-hungry sadists in the lot, but let’s hope not.) But when you have only a few spots to fill and a whole lot of manuscripts, you have to be harsh. You have to draw the line firmly.

I’ve been on the other side of this, of course. Many times. Not in contests, but by submitting to agents and editors. It’s a truly harrowing experience to know your entire novel, all 90-plus thousand words of it, will be judged, and likely eliminated, based on a tiny sample. It’s like having an entire restaurant judged as whether or not it can stay in business based on the taste of a single appetizer.

As new writers, we often feel the whole process isn’t fair. “If only they would read more, they’d see how good it is,” we think. But I’m here to tell you that’s not entirely true. What I’ve learned about this whole process is that the filter works pretty well. Those first ten pages can’t guarantee that an entire story will be great, but it can eliminate the stinkers effectively. If the reader can’t follow the opening paragraphs, if the first pages are riddled with typos and grammatical errors, if the introduction of the main character is confusing…well, there’s no real reason to keep reading.

But what about the ones that don’t have major issues like that? Well, here is what you have to remember: it’s not about how good your first pages are—it’s about how good they are compared to stacks and stacks of other good first pages on that agent or editor’s desk. I only had two entries to judge, and at the end I was asked if I were an agent would I request a full manuscript. It was very clear to me whether that answer was yes or no for both. But what if they had been close, yet I could only choose one?

That is where the difference lies. Agents and editors do get to choose more than one, but they still have to limit their selections tremendously. Which means picking between many sets of two manuscripts that are both “good.”

And speaking of “good”—that definition has changed dramatically for me over the past few years. This contest judging thing made me take a hard look at how my writing has progressed. I realize now that three years ago I would have insisted my first pages were just right…but now, I’d be embarrassed by those same pages. I fully understand now why so many of my submissions ended in rejection.  And I’m now grateful for that filtering process I once cursed for being “unfair.”

I’m happy to have gotten this chance to provide feedback to some aspiring writers. I hope in the end my comments, both positive and negative, help them along the journey. The road to publishing is rough, and it often seems like we are treading blindly—and that the obstacles are purposely being thrown at us by the gatekeepers just to hold us back. But truthfully, they are helping us get stronger, and as we travel farther we should be able to better understand and appreciate the judgement process.

About Kat Heckenbach

Kat grew up in the small town of Riverview, Florida, where she spent most of her time either drawing or sitting in her "reading tree" with her nose buried in a fantasy novel...except for the hours pretending her back yard was an enchanted forest that could only be reached through the secret passage in her closet... She never could give up on the idea that maybe she really was magic, mistakenly placed in a world not her own...but as the years passed, and no elves or fairies carted her away...she realized she was just going to have to create the life of her fantasies. She shares that life with her husband and two homeschooling kids. Kat is a graduate of the University of Tampa, Magna Cum Laude, B.S. in Biology. She spent several years teaching, but never in a traditional classroom--everything from Art to Algebra II. Her writing spans the gamut from inspirational personal essays to dark and disturbing fantasy and horror, with over forty short fiction and nonfiction credits to her name.

8 comments on “The Writer’s Journey Through Judgment

  1. I remember years ago, we turned on the Summer Olympics and watched athletes doing the high dive. To my rookie eyes, every dive was absolutely perfect, but the commentators nitpicked each one. I asked, “Why are they so hard on everybody?” And my mom replied something to the essence of, “They have to because they’re judging perfection.”

    I’ve joined a critique group, and critting other people’s work has shown me the weak areas in my own writing. I mean, wow, I SUCK. I know what you mean about having to be brutal and feeling so bad about it. But man, what a learning experience. I recently picked up a Dresden book, and his first ten pages slam you between the eyes and hold your consciousness hostage.

    I want to write like that.

    • Good comparison! I know what you mean–I’ve watched athletic competitions and been amazed, only to see the judges tear the athlete apart. The bar just gets raised at each level.

      Critique groups are awesome. And having a professional mentor is the best. I had an opportunity to have the chief editor from a local magazine crit a personal experience story of mine. She shredded it, but showed me piece by piece how to put it back together the *right* way. I sold that story seven times. Seven! The first time coming three days after I submitted it. But if you never put your stuff out there for “judgment” you never learn how to make it better.

      • So very true. I just ripped apart a story and I’m stitching it back together in a different order. It’s already much better. I don’t have the energy to pursue publication right now, because my brain bandwidth is not up to it (kids are too small). In a few years, though, definitely. In the meantime, I’m building up a body of work so I have something to publish once I’m ready. Gotta stay in training, you know? 🙂

      • Good plan! I didn’t do things quite that way–I kind of stumbled into writing and started running after publication immediately. Jumped in with both feet. Not sure if that was good or bad. Maybe bad because I had no clue what I was doing. Maybe good, because if I’d had a clue I might not have gone through with it at all :P.

  2. Ah, so you are one of the ‘evil’ judges that rip apart our ‘perfect’ stories. 🙂 That’s pretty much what I thought of one of the judges of a contest I entered a couple years ago. Two of the three judges gave me what amounted to average to slightly above average scores. The third judge’s score was half, numerically, than the other two. That particular judge essentially scolded me for entering the contest and that I needed to learn how to write. Ouch!

    However, after I cooled off, I read through all three judges comments and found commonalities showing the shortcomings of those first few precious pages. Yes, it was hard to hear, but there were problems that needed to be addressed.

    What you did Kat, was exactly what needed to be done. It may be hard to stomach, but when the writing isn’t up to snuff, they need to know.

    • Yep, that’s me. Evil Judge Kat :P.

      It IS hard. I know how tender and fragile a writer’s ego can be, I know mine has been as fragile as blown glass at times. But I also know that after I’ve gotten a particularly painful critique, and I’ve had time to sit in the corner and cradle my baby, I can become even *more* energized about writing. Finding an issue and finally knowing how to *fix* it is an awesome feeling.

  3. Thanks for the insight into what it’s like on the “other side.” Honestly, I wish I had someone reliable to critique and criticize my work. I’m currently in a writers group-free zone; mentors are out of the question. Friends either have no time or have no experience or interest the craft (which means a lot of “goods” or “bads”, but nothing concrete). I’m one of the “my own worst critic” people- I rarely submit anything because because I know it will never be good enough. The downside is that I never get any of that valuable feedback stuff that comes from just throwing something out there. Sounds like a resolution for the New Year!

    • Sounds like you may need to start a critique group :).

      I’m in two different writers groups, and there are about six in my area that I know of. Most of them started with one writer determined to get a few writers together. They all meet about once a month. A few of them meet at local Barnes and Noble stores–that might be a good place to check into for a meeting place. Or the library. Sometimes churches will let you hold meetings, too.

      Submitting stuff to magazines and such won’t get you feedback. Contests will, but magazines and anthologies give either a simple yes or no generally. But yes, if you don’t get your stuff in someone else’s hands, you’ll never find out what needs to be worked on.

      Best of luck in getting started on that! 😀

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