For the past two years, I've served as a judge in a romance writing contest. I just sent my evaluated entries back to the coordinator, and breathed a sigh of relief. I have to admit that I find the judging process somewhat painful.
I volunteer because I believe that in the community of writers, we need to help each other. It's an example of what I call "Writer's Karma". What goes around comes around. I've received a huge amount of advice and help from other authors. It's only right that I pass it along, sharing my experience as an author and editor
Sometimes I wish I hadn't raised my hand, though, because, to be blunt, some of the entries are really pretty bad. Meanwhile, it's my job to rate various aspects of the story and then tell the aspiring writer why she received a 1 or 2 out of a possible 5 in some categories. I know how she feels about her story - the same way I feel about my own work. I'm sure that it's her pride and joy. How can I gently break the news that her characters are shallow and inconsistent? That her constant head hopping leaves the reader hopelessly confused? That she doesn't seem to know how to punctuate dialogue or construct a grammatical sentence?
Judging is anonymous. Nevertheless, I'm very aware of how I would feel if someone gave me similar criticisms. I really hate making people unhappy.
So what can I do? For each story with serious problems, I ask myself, "Can this story be saved?". Is there a nugget of brilliance in the tale that can be polished, developed, and used as the foundation for a publishable book? If so, I make sure to highlight the positive aspects of the story, amidst the negative comments.
In fact, most of the entries I judged had intriguing premises. Despite their weaknesses, I would have read on if I had the full book rather than the first two or three chapters. Most problems related more to craft than to conception. And craft can be learned.
So in fact, the answer for most of the entries was "Yes". It might require nearly a complete rewrite, but in most cases, even the worst entries could eventually be turned into a book worth of publication.
I try to communicate that sentiment in my summary comments. And I hope that the contest entrants will not be too discouraged by the low grades I give them. Rather, I want them to be inspired to work on their book and perfect it.