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.