Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Writing Contests are Wonderful except for the Judges by J. Michael Orenduff

Mike Orenduff grew up in El Paso, Texas and received his B.A. from the University of Texas.  He received his M.A. from the University of New Mexico and his Ph.D. from Tulane.  He was a university professor and administrator in seven states and three countries before taking early retirement (or, as his friends describe it, a midlife crisis) to begin a writing career. His “Pot Thief” murder mysteries feature Hubie Schuze, a mild-mannered but politically incorrect treasure hunter who digs up and sells ancient Southwestern pottery.  He was doing it before Congress redefined treasure hunting as theft, and as Hubie likes to say, “Who knows more about thievery than Congress?” Mike currently lives in Valdosta, Georgia where his wife, the noted art historian Dr. Lai Orenduff, is a faculty member at Valdosta State University. 

Writing Contests are Wonderful except for the Judges
by J. Michael Orenduff

            The best thing about writing contests is someone wins, which cannot be said of the three other things you can do with your stories (two if you reject the burning them alternative).  You can send them to a publisher, but most publishers won’t accept your stories except through an agent.  You can send them to an agent, but most agents will throw them in the recycle bin without even opening the envelop. They want a query first.  If art galleries worked this way, they’d ask to see your brushes and paints before consenting to look at your canvasses.  If a hundred writers send a query to the same agent, it’s likely none will be invited to submit actual work.  But if a hundred writers submit work to a contest, at least there will be a winner.  Contests provide a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal business.

            The worst thing about contests are the judges.  This is not sour grapes  on my part.  My first mystery, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, won the Dark Oak Mystery Contest and the Kindle version won the “Eppie” for eBook Mystery of the Year.  My second book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, was selected as the Best Fiction Book of the Year last month by the Public Safety Writers Association.  My play, The Christmas Visitor, has won four awards, including first place in the Jewel Box Playwriting Contests, and the top list in the annual contest sponsored by Writers Digest.  Even that had a depressing side. The letter informing me of my success also informed me they received over 31,000 entries!  The two primary requirements to be a writer are irrational optimism and either a large bank account or the franking privileges of a Congressman.  

            After reading scores of judging sheets (I’ve entered more contests than the ones I was successful in), I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with judges.  They don’t read real books.  They are too busy reading books about how to write books and attending seminars about how to write books.  And some of them, one assumes, are also busy writing their own books using the techniques they have learned in those books and seminars dealing with books. 

            The evidence for this conclusion are the notes judges scribble on the manuscript, things like “We don’t know who Jane is” after an opening sentence of chapter three that says something like, “Jane threw two fresh ice cubes into the tumbler of Old Stumpblower,” or “This musing breaks the rhythm of the story” in the margin next so a sentence in which the protagonist says something like, “The mangled corpse brought back images from Viet Nam that I had worked for years to suppress,” or “No conflict” penned under an innocent paragraph where the protagonist and her brother are remembering the day they were chased by a dog.  From which it must be concluded that three rules of writing are 1) always explain who a character is before you let her do or say anything, 2) excise all sentences that do not advance the action, and 3) do not allow any narrative or dialog not essential to the story.

            W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  I find it telling that judges who like my work, in addition to displaying impeccable literary taste, seldom fall back on generalized do’s and don’ts, offering instead comments directed to the specific work.  Thus, “We don’t know who Jane is” is replaced by “The hardworking, hard-drinking Jane was well-drawn, and I found myself caring about what would happen to her.”  Even their negative comments are specific and therefore useful – “I found Jane to be just another hackneyed stereotype of the alcoholic reporter.”

            There is good writing and bad writing and I’ve demonstrated the ability to do both.  The trick is to increase the preponderance of the former.  Rules are not very helpful.  Lawrence Sanders’ Archie McNally series of murder mysteries is so light it’s been described as “frothy,” and fully half of each book is given over to musings, observations, and asides that do not advance the plot, do not contain conflict, and do not keep the action moving.  In a word, they are unnecessary.  However, the books sold so well that what was necessary was to continue them even after Sanders’ death.  The publisher hired Vince Lardo to continue, although Sanders’ name remains displayed more prominently on the covers.  There are no doubt other Lawrence Sanders out there, but they can’t get published because they don’t follow the rules.  Indeed, I suspect there are thousands of aspiring writers people would enjoy reading.  The fact that these writers are unpublished explains why used bookstores are so popular.  The agents and big publishing houses have choked off the supply of real books and turned instead to celebrity books, mindless drivel by celebrity politicians like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin.

            For any rule a contest judge can cite, I can show you a fiction best-seller that breaks it.  The best way to become a good contest judge is also the best way to become a good writer.  Read enough real books that you develop an ear for what works.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Hi, Mike, you're visiting on one of my favorite blogs. Having been a judge for lots of writing contests, including one of Writers Digest, I can tell you it's a grueling job.

I've even judged your books a couple of times--tee hee! But I never scrawled stupid remarks.


Patty said...

Amen - if we all liked exactly the same thing life would be boring. Bring on the different, the unusual, the unique!

As for the "celebrity" books, Public Libraries always get them, so if I'm ever tempted I'll read their copy.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Mike! Being a judge is a tough job. Winning isn't nearly as difficult--however, losing is. LOL I've done both.

Nice post!

Salvatore Buttaci said...

Many were the times a story or poem of mine, entered in a contest, did not win, but when I re-submitted it the following year, with a new judge or two, it did! Much about judging is personal taste.

By the way, I'm reading your book and loving it.

Salvatore Buttaci

Mystery Writers Ink said...

Hi, Mike

I won 'Ptolemy' in your contest, despite being more prone to enter writing contests than reading contests, and enjoyed it, and pushed it on the book group coordinators at my local indie bookstore.

Can I quote your wise words about the preponderance of good writing on the Mystery Writers Ink blog? If I promise not to scrawl stupid remarks in the margins?

Anonymous said...

Too right, Mike! I just finished judging for the best crime novel in New Zealand. Totally subjective.

Alice Duncan said...

I haven't entered a contest in eons. They're too darned depressing. The only contest I ever enjoyed was a "Romance and Humor" contest. I got a really wonderful critique by Roberta Gellis! I figured that was it for me. I don't like judging them, either. Guess I'm just an old grump, huh?

robert w. walker said...

I am far more likely to set up a contest at my blog or even on facebook, herding readers to my website than I am to enter a contest. Entered one once just to see if it was legit or just a come on for writers - figured if I won, they were legit (my arrogant youth), and damn if I didn't win not one category but TWO! But pretty much have stayed out of contests since except those at conferences (have won two Love is Murder awards). However, I do put together scavenger hunts and contests to, as I say, drive folks to my website or blog(s) I am involved in. I enjoy sending out the prize; makes me feel like Santa....hehehehhe....

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mike:
I love your Pot Thief books.Keep 'em coming!
Pat Browning
now on Kindle

WS Gager said...

Loved your post Mike and your take on contests. I'm fond of them as it help me get a publishing contract. You have to love the Dark Oak line. Reading Pot Thief now and enjoying. Have a great review swirling in my head but need to get to the end first. Cheers!
W.S. Gager

Patrick Brian Miller said...

The how-to writing industry wouldn't be such a huge money-maker if there weren't so many desperate aspiring writers out there to feed it. I like your comments about real books. After all, did Mark Twain learn his craft in a how-to book? He would have made great fun of such a book had he ever read one.

Jaden Terrell said...

Hi, Mike. This was a thought-provoking post. It's true, there's a subjective element to judging writing, so when possible, I like it when entries are read by multiple judges.

Lubna said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks for directing me here. Fortunately I've had some very good editors, including those who judged my story in a story contest. But, those of these editors I personally know devor books, and I am sure even those whom I don't know in person have a love for books.
Yes, writers and editors must love books and must read a wide array of them.

Mike Orenduff said...

There is, in fact, a preponderance of good writing on the Mystery Writers Ink blog. The one today by Grant McKenzie being an excellent example. And you can quote me on that.

Mike Orenduff

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Marilyn,
I've always admired your writing and your energy. I can't imagine judging for Writers Digest. Did they send the entries on a big truck?

Mike Orenduff

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Patty,

With the cutbacks at most public libraries, maybe the celebrity books should be the first ones trimmed from the acquisitions list. Although some of them are unintentionally funny.


Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Sylvia,

Your are always a winner in my book. Loved Dead Wreckoning. Love your social conscience.


Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Salvtore,

I didn't judge for the contest you won; I just provided a prize. But I did agree your entry was great.

Mike Orenduff

Mike Orenduff said...

Hey Anonymous in New Zealand. I think I know who you are. Would an animal name be a good guess?

Mike Orenduff

Mike Orenduff said...

To Alice,

The only person in Roswell who reads. A damn fine writer, too.



Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Rob,

Your contests are legend. I suspect you don't have time to enter contests. Too busy running your own and writing tons of books.


Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks, Pat. I admit I bought ABSENCE OF MALICE because of the title. It turned out to be one of my favorite books. Great writing and a great story.


Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks for the comment, Wendy. I've been meaning to post a review of INFATUATION for months. Now I have INTERSECTION, so I owe you two reviews.


Mike Orenduff said...


Loved you observation about Mark Twain. You phrased it like he might have.

Mike Orenduff

Mike Orenduff said...

Beth is coordinating Killer Nashville which starts in two weeks, and she has time to read blogs an make comments. Superwoman. One of her works also has a great summary blurb:
"Nashville Private Investigator Jared McKean has a son with Down Syndrome, a best friend with AIDS, an ex-wife he can't seem to fall out of love with, and a weakness for women in jeopardy--until one frames him for murder."

Mike Orenduff said...

Lubna is another talented writer who won a contest. She is also introducing the Pot Thief books to the world's largest English-speaking country. Maybe I'll do a book signing in India one of these days!


Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Enjoyed your essay.
From someone who won a writing contest, the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Traditional Novel competition. I enjoyed Pot Thief. Bring more on.

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Gerrie,

Your book, END GAME, shows that sometimes the judges do get it right. What terrific reviews it has received. And well deserved in my opinion. Of course the Malice Domestic/St.Martin's judges are probably the best panel around. I felt a connection to your book when I saw it mentioned Valdosta where I currently live. Look forward to your next one.


bo parker said...

Writing contests. I've entered my share, even won a few. But one I did not win is most remembered. The entry form stated all submissions would be returned with a written critique from the judge, a published author. I figured that would be worth the postage.
The submission, when returned, had extensive and laudatory comments ending with, "I enjoyed reading your entry," all written over the judge's signature. I wanted to learn more. I discovered the author had one book published; what might be called an autobiography. It was the story of a debilitating illness that led to permanent blindness.

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Bo,

What a fascinating story. It's the sort of snippet that makes a write say, there's a book in there waiting to be written.


jenny milchman said...

Hi Mike, interesting post. I haven't entered contests--just might begin to if Path A doesn't yield something soon--but I feel as if some of the risks with doing so that you note are addressed by the "wisdom of crowds" approach. If 1000 people read a book, and 800 of them love it, you probably have a well written story that has some wide appeal. But if 3 judges read something, and one of them hates first person, and another has a sister who reminds him of the antagonist, and another didn't get his morning coffee that day, an entry could be negged that the 800 readers would have responded well to. I don't know if I'm making any sense here, but I'm trying to suggest that decisions of writerly merit might be better made by a large group of readers versus a very small one.

I'm sure most judges are able to compartmentalize idiosyncratic reactions due to coffee and sisters, but still, there's a reason a large "N" is needed before anything definitive is concluded in a scientific experiment. But books are turned down all the time by only a small handful of people.

Jacqueline Vick said...

As a judge for an El Paso contest and a former screenwriting judge, I find I take forever, reading over manuscripts several times. I try to judge the work on it's own merits and not as what I think it should be, and I wrack my brain trying to see what the writer is going for rather than what the "rules" say he should be doing--a foolish attempt at mind reading.

It comes down to whether the writing grabbed me or not, which is a personal thing. Maybe someone with different experiences would appreciate something I cannot.

I have had the pleasure of reading some great stuff, and I always try to encourage in my comments.

Does this make me a good therapist and a lousy judge? Not sure.

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Jenny,

You are right about the N. The larger the better. Of course not every judge writes a critique sheet, and not every contest uses them. But when you receive them, it gives you a hint about how many judges. The largest number of critique sheet I receive are usually for theater scripts where I typically get 5 - 7 sheets. I don't know if contests for books and short stories have that many judges. I suppose some do.


Mike Orenduff said...


The next time I enter a contest, I want you as a judge! I love it that "try to judge the work on it's own merits and not as what I think it should be, and I wrack my brain trying to see what the writer is going for rather than what the "rules" say he should be doing--a foolish attempt at mind reading."

And if I lost, at least you would offer me some therapy.