March 16, 2014

On Contest Judging

Fair warning: this post is mostly a rant.

I am intentionally writing this (and posting ahead of my standard Monday schedule) before Pitch Madness results go up, because this is not about results.  To be clear, I think Pitch Madness, and other such online contests, are wonderful on the whole. They are useful to aspiring authors, they bring the community together, and they generally bring the work of unrepresented writers out of endless slush piles and into the light.  Quite a bit of the advice posted publicly as part of these contests is helpful. (Did you miss this round's #PitchMadness tweets? Check out this synthesized version.)  This post is absolutely not about bashing these contests, those who organize them, or those who volunteer to be slush readers / judges.

That being said, for the most part said volunteers are not authorities, and their comments should not be taken as gospel! 

I have written before about the necessity of weighing the source of the feedback we receive from contests, but this is more than that. The fact is, these slush readers may not be any more advanced on this path to literary success than those entering, and even those who are, cannot possibly be authorities on the intricacies of every single genre. Some of this round's Pitch Madness readers were entrants (and not finalists) of last September's. The host of Nest Pitch is not currently a published or agented author.  All of this is okay, until these people present themselves as ultimate authorities, leading inexperienced writers to take them as such.

One major example from this round's Pitch Madness that personally gets on my nerves is the obsession with word counts. Yes, there are guidelines for appropriate word counts, but no, all those posts (even the ones on Writer's Digest) are not entirely accurate, and a 35-word pitch + 250-word sample should not generally hinge on the listed word count! There are obvious extreme examples, such as a 20,000-word novel (that's not a novel, it's a novella) or a 200,000-word middle grade novel (which should likely be a series or seriously edited), but outside of such extremes, it should depend on the writing, not the word count!

I'm going to use romance to illustrate, because it's the genre I'm most familiar with for obvious reasons. Most "word count" posts say that an adult novel should be between 80,000-110,000 words.  Romance Writers of America, which is as close to an authority on romance as we have, really, in their RITA guidelines state that a full-length, single-title contemporary romance is 65,000+.  RWA chapter contests will sometimes say those entries should be 85,000+ — so hey look! a 20,000-word discrepancy.  Furthermore, in romance we have "short contemporary romances" which RWA says must be under 65,000 words — and we have "category" romances which tend to be listed as 50,000-70,000 words.  Which ultimately means that an adult romance could legitimately have a word count of anywhere from 50,000-110,000 words!!

Now, I wouldn't expect a sci-fi writer to know all of this, the same way that I don't know the intricacies of Speculative Fiction tropes. (Heck, I exchanged tweets with a fellow romance writer who was one of the readers and who propagandized the inaccurate "general" target word counts.) What I do expect, however, is for these slush readers not to look at an adult entry's word count of, say, 55,000 words and automatically discount the writer as not knowing their genre / the market, therefore disqualifying the entry! Not only is it incorrect, but also it's pretentious and quite insulting to the writer whose entry that is.  For that matter, a 65,000-word Sci Fi novel could be complete and compellingly written, even though by the guidelines of word count "gurus" it's "way too short." The writing should rule, not mathematics. (Brave New World is undoubtedly an adult novel, and yet it's only about 50,000 words. Same goes for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Why is it considered appropriate for these writers who double as slush readers / judges to assume that entrants are idiots, as opposed to that they (the judges) don't actually know everything about every genre and every category? Furthermore, why do entrants assume that these people, who in many cases do not have any particular qualifications besides knowing the host, are authorities on every single genre that they're judging? It's not an issue only of subjectivity (which boils down to "I was/wasn't hooked") but simply of knowledge, and it frustrates me to no end, thinking of the writers who have a perfectly reasonable word count for their book who will either be discouraged or will ruin their books with unnecessary padding / possibly cuts. 

These writers who volunteer their time as slush readers should be focused on spotlighting other writers, including those whom the industry as a whole may otherwise disregard based on something as simple as a word count, and on helping their works find their way to publication — not on prejudiced decisions with baseless authoritativeness. 

There are other similar instances within judges' comments that makes it infinitely clear that we as entrants need to weed through the "tips" for ones with utility and credibility, and that those judging should strive for a higher level of understanding of their own weaknesses, before offering suggestions, and the intricacies of the genres / categories they volunteer to judge. Personally, I don't believe a single typo (though we should all really avoid this inasmuch as possible) should disqualify an entry either — partially because I've had "authorities" mark me down for "poor mechanics" when they were the ones incorrect (even though grammar is one of those things that isn't entirely subjective). Many typos, sure, but not one.

Since it's impossible to ensure that the judges of contests to which we submit are infallible authorities (in fact, that's impossible, period), we must as entrants and fellow writers remember their fallibility and weigh both contest results and individual comments with that information in mind.  If it helps, I know of at least two romances which didn't make it into the finals of last September's Pitch Madness, both of which received offers less than a couple of months later.

Okay, rant over. 

Reminder: Pitch Madness results should be up Monday the 18th, & Nest Pitch is happening for the first time on April 1st.


  1. Word count doesn't matter to me, except when it is telling me whether a book is a short story or not, I might want a fast read. If it's a great story, I don't care how many words it has. Actually, if it is great, I don't want it to end, so the more the better. LOL Who thinks up all these "rules" anyway?

    1. Agents, publishers, reviewers who aren't as enlightened as you, contest judges — basically anyone with any kind of authority, imagined or otherwise, to pass judgment on an author's work. Marketing people claim it stems from the amount of paper required to print a book vs. the thickness / visibility of the spine on a shelf, and that readers want more "bang for their buck" — $2.99 for an ebook that's 50,000 words vs. for one that's 100,000 words. For an indiscriminate reader, the second is a better "deal."

      Ridiculous as all of that is in my opinion, the worst part is then people start to pass judgment not only while disregarding the merit of the particular work, but also without knowing all the rules the industry has made up (which I think no one really can for all genres & categories at all times).