26 June 2007

REPOST 5/12/05 The truth about contests

It never ceases to amaze me that some people get so...competitive about writing contests. Yes, I enter them and I love it when I do well, but I will never understand those who are either incredibly sour losers or incredibly poor winners. Why? Well, let's look at contests.

No matter how a contest is decided, there will always be a matter of either luck/chance or personal preference involved. I will disregard, for this discussion, contests that are decided on the basis of money donated to secure a win, contests that are rigged somehow to ensure a particular winner, or contests that are fake information-gathering schemes where everyone "wins."

There are contests that rely on a bit of luck. If you enter a drawing to pitch your book to an agent or publisher, you are relying on luck to win it. Every ticket that goes into the barrel has the same chance of being drawn. Buying more tickets means that you are maximizing your chances to win, but probably not by much unless you're buying hundreds of tickets. Being either a poor winner or sore loser in a case like that makes no sense. An inch to the right, and someone else would have walked away with the prize.

I do scowl openly at contests where they auction off this honor for charity. It's not that I have anything against charity or against agents donating time this way. From a purely logical standpoint, the charities are selling themselves short this way. Yes, some rich person might pay a lot of money to get that chance, but that person can attend RWA cons and meet agents there...for a lot less money. If they raffled the chance off, every aspiring author who is stuck in the slush pile would put in $5 for a chance, and a LOT more money would be raised, since it's coming from thousands of pockets instead of one. Certainly, the agent might be stuck with meeting with a complete amateur with a book that is not saleable, but that is the chance that is taken even with the auction. Just because someone has a spare $5000 in the bank doesn't indicate that he or she can write, does it?

Other contests depend on personal preferences to win. Now, let's not discuss ballot stuffing in a reader contest, please! Maybe the author has that many readers and maybe someone was busy setting up fake e-mail accounts to stuff the box. Though it may seem clear that someone is cheating at times, I said we weren't going to discuss cheating...and unless you can prove it, you might as well just go on with life, because what are you going to do about it? Accuse the person and give them the opening to make you look like a sour loser? Don't give them the benefit, please. Anyone who would cheat in a contest isn't worth your time to get upset with. (Neither are the ones who are poor winners, but there is even less that you can do about them, because at least they won honestly!)

Back to the subject... Personal preference plays a role in all other contests. How can I say that if there are judges and set guidelines? Even with established guidelines, the judges (professional authors, editors or readers) are going to weight the scores according to their personal feelings on the books they read...and sometimes even of the author in question. It's human nature, and there is no getting away from it. Accept it and move on.

When an editor reads a book for a contest, everything will be colored by what the editor likes to read and what he/she typically looks for in a submission. A judge may mark down for characterization, though the characters are strong and flawless; simply the reason that the judge finds the character unpalatable is reason enough for most to mark it down. A judge may mark down for plotline, not because the plotline isn't historically correct/researched well or believeable, not because it's full of continuity or logic errors, but because the author touched on a subject that is painful or abhorrant to the judge. Some judges may see a few typos in a book and mark down one point out of ten; another may mark down three for the same typos.

Now, does this really happen? Of course, it does. If it didn't, would authors get scores back from contests that vary wildly (4 points from one judge, 9 and 10 from two others)? Would the author get scores back that don't show any pattern of weakness but come out with high scores across the board EXCEPT that one judge gave 4 out of 10 points in characterization and another gave 3 out of 10 in plot while a third gave 9 out of ten across the boards? If it was a perfect world, and the judges didn't show personal preference in judging, this wouldn't happen. They would all judge uniformly. They would have to.

What does that mean for a contest win or a contest loss? If you win, it means that the judges you got in the draw (luck) liked (showed a personal preference to) the kind of book you wrote and your handling of it THAT DAY (luck). If you didn't win, it means one or more of the factors above failed you.

I won't go as far as suggesting that the winning book was better than the loser, though it might have been better. I won't suggest that the winning book was better suited to the contest or category, though it might have been. There have been times, and we've all seen them, when a clearly inferior book (sometimes in the wrong category) finaled or won in a contest, for no better reason than the fact that the judges liked that one that day.

Now, knowing that... Is it really worth it to be a poor winner or a sour loser?

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