An American Editor

March 9, 2022

Thinking Fiction: Passing Judgment on Other People’s Creative Work

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Carolyn Haley

If you’re a fiction author or editor and want to up your game, try judging a writing contest. That will give you a view from the other side, which will give your own work more perspective and meaning.

It will also test your technical knowledge. Contests can cover anything from storycraft to full publishing packages. Some contests are for works in process, others for published works; some are for short fiction, others for novels.

There are so many contests that the subject warrants its own essay. This essay is about my personal experience in judging independently published novels, since that’s the realm wherein I work. I figured that decades of editing, writing, producing, and reviewing novels qualified me to judge them in a competition.

The game-changer

The main challenge in judging creative works is how to balance subjectivity against objectivity. My first two contests involved just a handful of criteria and a handful of books. Evaluation was easy, so I eagerly stepped up to another level. The third contest, however, felt like a college course from which I barely graduated after exuding much blood, sweat, and tears.

The contest is a well-known one with status in indie publishing. Entrants pay a hefty fee to participate. The fees, however, do not add up enough to support cash prizes, or to pay the many judges. We judges volunteer for whatever reasons. Mine were curiosity and a desire to learn, with the fantasy that someday I would qualify to judge at the top tier.

As a multi-genre editor and reviewer secure in my skills, I was floored when assigned my category: Best First Novel. This required evaluating a mix of genres for “best package wins.” I might as well have been judging apples against bananas to decide which was the best fruit.

My titles included science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism, thrillers, a contemporary Western, two short-story collections, and a couple I’m not sure how to define.

The judging criteria comprised story content, story craft, story appropriateness to genre, mechanical correctness of the writing, quality of editing and proofreading, cover design (back, front, and spine, including images and typography), interior design (including images and typography), completeness (i.e., did it include an ISBN, title page, copyright page), and quality of paper and binding. Considering these factors exercised all the publishing-related skills and knowledge I’ve acquired over my career.

The judging system was numerical (scale of 1 to 10) per criterion, each book independent from the rest. The criteria were designed to make liking or disliking any factor irrelevant. While I’m used to dialing back personal taste in my work, here I had to unplug it entirely. That was hard enough. But then came the catch:

After scoring each book objectively, we then had to rank them subjectively in the event of a tie. A tie might occur because a judge scored two or more books to the same total; also because every category had three judges who worked blind to one another. Just as the contestants had no knowledge of who was judging their work, the judges had no knowledge of who was judging the same material. If, for example, one of the top positions came out even when the numbers were totted up, there had to be some way to distinguish them and determine the awards.

The conundrum

Unlike many literary contests these days, this one was for printed books only, which added a storage and disposal challenge. Boxes of books arrived in two installments over four months. As a new judge, I received only 20 books, compared to dozens for the experienced judges. We were not required to read them all cover to cover (thank goodness!) but to do a thorough scan of beginning, middle, and end, with sampling checks in between, to gauge story structure, style, and mechanicals. I read half of mine all the way through.

Subjectively, I liked only one book and two of the covers. Objectively, I immediately saw two contenders for the package win. A few qualifiers for second and third eventually emerged. The rest fell into the slush pile, from which I had to select a top 10.

I found that rating the books individually, then rating them against one another, was painful. It also took far more time than I’d anticipated, so I had to drop other activities for the contest duration. At about the halfway point, I started counting down time until it would be over.

The results have not been announced as of this writing, so I do not know whether my efforts were worth it for the contestants. But, hair-tearing as the experience was, it was worth it to me in terms of continuing education as an editor and a writer.

Key learning points

Editing and writing are open-ended pursuits, in that you never stop learning and can always improve. As well, each informs the other, whether at a professional or personal level.

Here is what I learned after judging Contest #3.

• The importance of cover design

Each entrant had to state the novel’s target audience on the entry form, so judges could analyze the effectiveness of the author’s aim. In my group, almost every book wobbled or failed in this respect. Only one front cover clearly conveyed what to expect inside the wrapper. Back covers ranged from lame to dreadful, with one being unreadable. Others skipped a summary blurb and just pasted reviews over the complete space. I can’t imagine why, because readers are unlikely to pick up a book that gives no clue to what the story is about.

Which directly relates to …

• The importance of genre selection

As I’ve learned from editing many first novels by indie authors, there’s always a good story idea. The question is how well it’s executed. This includes targeting the appropriate audience. In my contest category, it appeared that most authors did not know who they were writing for, which created a disconnect between the story, the style, the cover, the blurb, and the author’s desired readership. Frequently, the cover suggested one genre and the rest of the package conveyed another. In such cases, the book is almost certainly doomed to commercial failure.

• The importance of copyediting and proofreading

A good story compensates a lot for weak production, and in the real world, some readers don’t notice or care about technical bloopers in prose. Indeed, plenty of indie authors take advantage of that to release sloppy products — and they still gain sales and positive reviews. They’re not going to win awards, however. At least not from this judge. In my opinion, a handful of bloopers is forgivable; we’re all human. But a truckload of bloopers conveys any combination of author/publisher ignorance, laziness, or disdain for readers. Given how much information on writing and publishing is available via the internet, books, articles, and classes, it’s hard to believe authors and publishers can be so clueless. Perhaps competitions are their own route to education.

• The importance of interior design

I hadn’t thought much about typography and margins and such before this contest, but after seeing so many bad layouts, I came to understand why interior design matters. Some books are physically hard to read. Skinny gutters in fat paperbacks motivate you to break the spine because the book is springing back at you all the time and curving the lines into the crease. Bad vertical spacing and long line length can lead to pages so densely packed you keep losing your place as you read. Small type size requires magnifying lenses even for people under 40. And relying on the automatic spacing of a word processing program can lead to gappy, hard-to-read text that a professional typographer would never let out the door.

• The importance of paying attention

Two entrants in my category submitted advance reader copies (ARCs), while everybody else submitted published finals. The contest rules didn’t specifically prohibit ARCs, but when they showed up in my pile, I tried to get the entries disqualified. I thought it unfair to judge works in process against published works, since they might change in any direction from what I held in my hand.

It turned out the contest organizers weren’t paying attention, either. Their wording of the submission requirements was easy to misinterpret, allowing me and most of my contestants to assume that the requirement for books to be copyrighted in the contest year meant that they had to be published in the contest year. After I pointed this out, I was assured the submission language would be adjusted for the following year. But for this year, I had to treat unequal entries as equal.

This gave me an attitude problem. The principle of the thing was one matter; there was also a personal grievance. In 2020, one of my own novels had been bounced from a different contest because of copyright date. My book was originally published traditionally in 2015; when the contract expired, I took back the rights, repackaged it, and self-published it with a 2020 copyright date. The contest organizers decided that its real copyright was 2015 and disqualified the entry.

It happens that my story was first written decades earlier, and thus entered legitimate copyright status the moment it came into existence. Each revision, technically, engendered a new copyright. By the time I self-published it, the story had gone through dozens of iterations. So what was the true copyright date?

Methinks from these examples that contest requirements have to be precise on this point. I encourage all authors and judges to read the fine print twice, and in case of doubt, query the organizers before committing to involvement.

The power of wallet

The final lesson from this experience was the importance of money. Many (most?) indie authors get a whopping great sticker shock when they choose to publish independently. To develop a book to the quality standards established by traditional publishing takes either thousands of dollars or massive hours of self-education; usually both.

In my stack of entries, I could almost calculate each author’s budget by where the money obviously did or did not go. Likewise, the authors’ knowledge of the publishing process (or lack thereof) was transparent. The winner in my category was evident the moment I pulled it from the box. Everything about the book was outstanding — writing, editing, cover, blurb, binding, interior all reflected author payment for professional services. No other entrant came close. Some made me cringe in embarrassment for the author because the books were so poorly done.

Low production quality has been a dominant factor in all three contests I’ve judged. They’ve convinced me that the traditional arm of the publishing industry has nothing to worry about from the indie arm for a while yet to come. Indeed, when I read for recreation and relaxation, I go straight to traditionally published books from reputable houses. Despite how much they have trimmed staff and tightened budgets in recent years, traditional publishers still leave indie publishers in the dust when it comes to physical product.

Of course, there are exceptions, but if my limited experience reflects reality, then only a small percentage of independently published novels present themselves on par with the average traditionally published novel.

This is something to think about for indie authors — and the editors who help them — desiring to get great reviews, win awards, and make money in the fiction marketplace. I knew this in theory before I started judging, but now I know it for sure.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

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