Thursday, January 21, 2010

More on Judging

Although there is an discussion of the judging process via a link in the contest rules, I thought I'd take a moment to refresh the explanation.

The system I developed for scoring entries is called P.E.T.S. Voice, which stands for (P)acing, (E)ntertainment Value, (T)echnical Use of Language, (S)Storytelling, and (V)oice. Each element carries a possible score of 10 points, with the exception of voice, which has a maximum of 5 points. The reason for treating voice differently is that it is difficult to establish a unique voice in 250 words. When all of the categories are added together, the total possible points for an entry is 45. Please note that because only 10 points are given purely for the story concept (entertainment value), the result of my system is that a good story expertly written is going to score higher than a great story with significant writing problems.

In a way, the categories represent an expanding scope of review. Technical scoring looks within the sentences themselves. Pacing describes how well the sentences build on each other. Storytelling considers the flow of paragraphs and what you chose to portray to give your story life. Entertainment scores the idea itself, and voice reflects whether your writing has a clear, overall identity.

How do I score? Basically, I expect a story to be effortless in taking me into its world. I hold to the old writing advice that the words should create a continuous, uninterrupted dream. If an entry pushes back against me in any way, if it is not effortless and I am pulled out of the dream, I begin to deduct points. In any given category, 10 is perfect, 9 has one thing slightly bothering me, 8 has at least two definite rubs, 7 has multiple points of friction, 6 and below needs major revision in that category.

Keep in mind that a writer always becomes too close to a story to adequately judge for him/herself whether the story unfolds effortlessly. You can only read a story for the first time once. After that, your brain is contaminated. That is why it is a good idea to share your entry with a good critique partner before submitting it.

Now that I have scored between 1000 and 2000 entries in 12 contests, I find that entries scoring 42 - 44 are very strong and need only minor tweaks (the uncommon 45 entries practically fly off the page). 40 - 41 are very well done, but probably have at least one area to sharpen. 37 - 39 are good, but have multiple areas to sharpen. 35 - 36 have promise, but need substantial sharpening. Those under 35 need major revision. Of course, my theories on writing are not the only ones out there. You should review the results of the prior contests to make sure that you want to be subjected to my judging style.

As the size of the contests grow, so do the number of high scoring entries. How are the winners chosen? All of the top scorers in the 40's are collected, and my judging shifts to my sense of originality and impact. Of course, these elements are highly subjective. I also strive to have a mix of genres among those recognized.

What are common issues that cause deductions?

1. Telling Instead of Showing. Most of the time, a story is strongest when it's portrayed in real time for the reader, not narrated by the author in a kind of summarized, Cliff's Notes fashion.

Example: Stephanie was so tired of her mother staring at her. Her mother asked so many questions all the time. She accused Stephanie of not caring. Nothing was ever good enough. Stephanie thought that she didn't even have the energy to respond anymore.

Rewrite: Stephanie pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Mother stood by the table. Angry and waiting. Stephanie sighed, the fatigue pulling at her. "I'm sorry, mother," she said finally. "But I really don't know what to say to you anymore."

2. Over-description. If a single sentence has more than two adjectives, you're in danger of diminishing your impact. Example: The long, winding road was filled completely with a permeating, oppressive darkness.

3. Unbelievable Dialog.

Example: "What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"

"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."

Rewrite: "Put the hammer down!"

"I'm going to fucking kill you."

4. Mismatch. Mismatches can be in intensity, such as when powerful words are paired with a non-powerful moment.

Example: "The parking ticket thundered into my hands and demolished my every chance of having a glorious day."

Descriptions should generally fit the importance of the moment in length and intensity.

Mismatches can also be in time. Don't use lengthy descriptions to portray a very quick action (unless you are specifically going for a slow-motion effect).

Example: His fingers extended toward the door, and as he touched the brass, his hand curled around knob. With a twist, the door unlatched. He pulled it open and entered.

Reading these words takes about four times as long as the action itself.

5. Weak Verbs. Example: The sky was dark. The motorcycle was idling. He was eager to go. Rewrite: The clouds piled in the sky. The motorcycle engine sputtered. He flexed his hands, ready to go.

6. Unnecessary Words/Tightening. Example: When he sat down on the chair, he thought he saw her go out of the door and out of the room. Rewrite: As he sat down, he saw her rush from the room. (Stronger verb too.)

7. Cliches. Example: He needed her like he needed to breathe.

This weekend, I'll be leaving feeback on the entries which scored lower than 40. Here is a quick guide on how to interpret my comments:

If I say your best element was:

Pacing - The progress of your sentences carried the story well. The story didn't stumble on how it moved in time.

Entertainment Value - Excellent, creative idea!

Technical Use of Language - Your sentences were well constructed, strong, and vivid.

Storytelling - When you take your idea and translate it to 250 words, you have to make decisions about what to portray and how. Your decisions made the story live.

Voice - I got an identifiable sense of your voice. A uniqueness.

If I say you might need more attention in:

Pacing - Your sentences may not have built in a seamless way. The writing felt disjointed.

Entertainment Value - The idea might be improved by giving it more depth or a more unusual take.

Technical Use of Language - Sentences themselves stumbled and pulled me from the story. Common reasons are overdescription and unbelievable dialogue.

Storytelling - Your idea may have been portrayed more strongly with different choices in what to show us.

Voice - The writing may have felt too generic. Not unique.

Thanks again for a wonderful experience!


the walking man said...

Sounds like a fair set of standards that can be equally applied across the board to me. You know what you are doing Jason or you wouldn't have so many submissions. The rules or criteria for them are sound; as is the bit of advice on writing.

Laurel said...

Thanks, Jason!

One of the things I really like about this contest is the heavy emphasis on words. It is a great exercise in picking, choosing, and paring your words down.

I've read so many books, even ones I loved, that had a fantastic story but the writing could have been better. I've read a few with amazing writing but the story dragged. Storytelling trumps all in commercial success, but those books- and song lyrics- that have a joy of words to them are transcendent.

I also think you've done a great thing here with Reader's Choice in addition to official judging. It allows the pieces that everybody liked to be recognized independent of one person's judging criteria.

Add in the prizes, which I can only assume are paid for by you, and the writing gods must be well and truly pleased with your offerings at their altar!

Thanks again.

MRMacrum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Eldin said...

But... but...
I *like* this:

"What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"

"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."

LOL! This is good stuff.

MRMacrum said...

I deleted my earlier comment because it contained a question that had I paid closer attention, was answered in the above post. Here's the rest of the comment as I remember it.

Jason, I have to say I really enjoyed this and this contest is way cool. The quantity, quality and variety of stories was astounding. That you take the time to analyze each one blows my mind. I look forward to your take on my story. Thanks for putting this on.

Jean said...

I believe this will be one of the rare times that a story of mine has been critiqued in detail by a professional.
Looking forward to your advice.

JaneyV said...

Wow Jason - it's extremely generous of you to go inot all that detail. Thanks again. Again.

allthatmatters said...

Thanks a lot's been a great learning experience...

Unknown said...

Wow, it's all I can say. So much time, effort, and consideration on your part. Thanks for taking the time and making us all better at what we have come together for, to write.

*g* I agree with Chris, this is the good stuff!! LOVED the hammer line.

Dottie :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this post! Extremely informative - for the writer and editor in all of us. Appreciated! :)

~ Corra

from the desk of a writer

Robert187 said...

Thanks for all the work you're putting into the critiques. You're a dedicated man!
I have some thoughts re critiquing stories: First, I think what's most important to look at is the story itself, before all questions of form (pacing, word usage, etc.) A good story, even badly written, can always be punched up. A bad story is dead news forever, regardless how much it's gussied.
Story, i.e., content, is what pushes inside you to be made manifest. It pre-exist form. Form is the manifestation of content, subsidiary to it. No content without form, of course, but the primary question is always, I think, what's being said?
I'm reminded of Hollywood which comes out with wonderfully made flicks costing billions each year. Style up the ying-yang, you know? Yet most of these high-tech fantasias are pretty much all sizzle, no steak.
Some things done wonderfully should never be done at all.
Anyway, re the rules: you've gotta learn 'em, if only to break 'em when the time is right. For example, I think, on occasion, it's better to use a "weak" verb than a "strong" one, if only to give the story a more natural feel, in line with speech, or to stay in accord with the rhythm the story has established. A misused "strong" verb, put in a story to comply with the rule, carries with it the sound of the author flailing to maintain a style in accord with what he or she has been taught in English Lit class.

Anonymous said...

Walking Man, I appreciate that. Thanks!

Laurel, you said it better than I did. I totally agree. You can have a lot of success with great stories and troubled writing, but that's not what I'm choosing to focus on.

Chris, okay, we'll keep the hammer. :)

MRMacrum, I'm glad you got so much out of the community interaction.

Jean, I just offer my honest thoughts. :)

JaneyV, thanks, my friend. :)

Rohan, for me too!

Dottie, I've tried to construct a decent approach. I'm happy with how it has worked over the years.

Corra, I'm glad you found these thoughts helpful!

Robert187, yes, you are correct about great stories with bad delivery making lots of money. I don't deny that all. But here, I am absolutely, expressly taking the opposite view. I think Laurel said it excellently above. When a work has a great story and great writing, it transcends. On this point, the weight of scoring in these contests will not change. As for the issue of strong verbs, I don't mean to say that all verbs must be strong. It can absolutely be overdone. Weak verbs are necessary for proper pacing and taking a breath. The winning entries display a nice balance of both strong and weak verbs. The problem I'm identifying is when weak verb overwhelm a piece and rob it of intensity.

Robert187 said...

It's not a question of making money, I never said that. As you said, "When a work has a great story and great writing..." I have no quarrel at all with that, and I'm not asking you to change your criteria for judging. I just maintain that, without a story, all the wonderful words in the world mean nothing, no matter how exquisitely they're strung together.

Anonymous said...

jason -- your criteria are well spread out and comprehensive for objetice judgement of any CoNtest, and I appreciate your time and effort. Story telling has of course the subjective elements -- both from teller and listener, and that's when experience counts of what works. I re-read my earlier entries and see myself improving progressively -- made it to the 40s club the previous occasion which is REWARD in itself because this C has such alumni i would pay to be with for an evening if that would be before the Last supper:) Cheers everyone here/hear! YL, Desi

austere said...

Sounds fair.

(Now that I'm done sulking.)

AngelConradie said...

I've got butterflies already as I wait for what you have to say about mine!

Mahesh Sindbandge said...

Interesting :)

I did not know this much myself. Will share with my frnds... How much of this stands true for a person who aspires to be a novel writer?

Is there a site/link/place which can help me or others to improvise further and further on that?

Let me know Jason. Thanks in advance.


SzélsőFa said...

those rules sound very realistic - I know they are based on years of experience and good intuition.
I'm so eager to get my verdict. I write for fun, but I know I still have a long way to go in many fields. basically, in most, if not all of the fields :)))
a valuable feedback is very important for me, and I guess for all contestants here. thank you for this great opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Robert187, it sounds like we agree far more than it initially appeared. As I said above, I collect all of the high scoring entries for a second round of judging. That was about 60 this time. At that point, I ignore the scores. Judging is ONLY based on the story. People are rewarded for orginal ideas and angles and overall impact. To make that second round, however, the writing has to be good. Peace.

Desi, if you feel that you have improved, that it's been more than worthwhile. For me, it's not just the feedback, but it is seeing what other people are capable of. What is possible.

Austere, to be honest, the most negative thing about these contests for me is not the grinding work, it's the winners announcement. There is always grief. However, I believe that the good these contests do far outweighs my sadness in seeing the disappointment.

Angel, I'm going to post tomorrow about this, but I'm changing my plans. I'm not going to ocmment on entries. I'm going to give that feeback privately to anyone who wants it (and emails me).

Mahesh, the story itself becomes much more important in a novel if you are targeting traditional publication. However, I believe that strong writing is always preferrable to bad writing. As for writing advice, it comes in countless forms out there. I haven't read it, but Stephen King's On Writing is held in high regard.

Szelsofa, I have the highest respect for writers here who do not speak English as their first language. I wish I could read your work in Hungarian. Writing is such a delicate thing, and it must be so hard to communicate nuances when you're battling the basic structure of a language. Even so, you achieve so much.

SzélsőFa said...

thank you Jason, for your kind words.

when I've read that all participants are going to get a detailed feedback according to your scoring system I thought what a great chance would that be to any reader, not just to the author of that entry.
I liked most of the entries I've read (but was unable to read all entries), and some were great, some were greater than great, but I would have liked a guiding as to reason the difference I feel but can not explain.
I see now that this original plan was changed, which decision is absolutely at your hands. so shall be it :)
and yes, I'd prefer the feedback received in the form of a comment on my entry. I do not mind others reading it: it's the opposite.
thanks again!

SzélsőFa said...

@Chris' and Dottie's first comment here:
we appear to have a similar taste :)))

Antriksh Satyarthi said...

great going jason...for the first time my writing will analysed by a professional...I'm looking forward to it. Also i would like to congratulate you for the great job you are doing.

btw I agree with cris. I also like-

"What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"

"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."

Anonymous said...

I'm also a bummed that your crits/comments won't be posted for all to see and learn from. But I understand that it can be a touchy issue.

Deb Smythe said...

Oops. Didn't meant to be Anonymous. Anon 2:43 was me.