Contests–good or bad?

Lori Devoti, in a comment at Romancing the Blog, claims that what’s wrong with Romance Novels just now is all the contests for the unpublished that currently clog RWA chapters. She says:

The problem, as I see it, is the rules. Too many rules. I don’t want to read a book written by the rules, but when I am asked to judge for a contest I am handed a little check sheet telling me what makes a good romance – no head hopping; no back story; hero and heroine appear in first chapter; goal, motive, and conflict apparent; and my personal favorite – properly formatted

She goes on to say that following these little check-sheet forms often winds up with the judge scoring down on the better entries, those with a unique voice. I’m not sure I agree. I did post a comment there, but I have more to say, and I might as well say it here.

First off, I never did all that well in contests. I finaled in a lot of them. But never won any. Best I ever did was 2nd place, which I seemed to do on a regular basis, but never 1st. And I never ever finaled in the Golden Heart. But I still sold a book. In fact, I’ve sold five. Which is not saying a whole lot, since it was 5 books over 5 years, and I know people who’ve sold 5 books in 5 months. But my point is, I probably don’t know everything about contests.

I do judge a fair number of them, and I’ve found that if an author has written enough that she has a distinctive voice and can write a good story, it’s good all round. The voice leaks over into all those check-boxes. If the voice is there, the characterization is there. The motivation is usually there. Most of those other points are there. Really, it comes down to the judges–and that is where it gets tricky. I’ve found–in my previous unpublished career and since–that the unpublished are harsher judges than the published, generally speaking. Because they are so caught up in The Rules.

At the same time, most contest entries are mediocre. There’s nothing really wrong with them–but there’s nothing really good either. The voice is stilted. There’s no real connection with who the characters are or where they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing…there’s usually a lot of potential–the story idea is good, but the execution isn’t quite there. Frankly, if a story has a unique voice and it’s “Good”–it stands above the other entries–I’m going to give it the points it needs to rank high.

As far as I’m concerned, there are Two Cardinal Rules to writing fiction.
1: Thou Shalt Not BORE the Reader; and
2: Thou Shalt Not CONFUSE the Reader.

The “boring” rule is the more important. You must keep them engaged. And then you must make sure they can follow what’s going on. The “confusion” rule tends to be the more difficult rule to follow, because this is where all the grammar and structure stuff comes into play. Grammar was invented to foil confusion.

But if you can follow these two rules, the rest of them don’t really matter.

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