Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Joys And Perils Of Contest Judging

By romance standards I classify myself as a "slow reader."  It takes everything I've got to get through 100 books a year - and that takes some fudging (Yes, I count short stories, novellas and category romances the same as I would a 400 page single title.  Yes, that's probably cheating, but my record keeping, my rules).  By romance reader standards, that's pretty light in the pants.  I know many readers online who routinely get through 200 books a year.  And they somehow manage to hold down full time jobs, deal with their families, and the general annoyances of Real Life.  I could read 200 books a year, but I'd need to realize my life-long dream of being a kept woman to achieve it.  And since the Greek tycoons don't seem to be beating down the Bat Cave's door?  Yeah, Wendy struggles on every year to hit 100.

Which means I must have been crazy to agree to do some contest judging for a local RWA chapter.  Part of it was I was flattered.  I was asked to read all the top scoring books in each of the 9 categories and then pick the "best" overall.  So yeah - 9 books.  There are months I don't get 9 books finished.  Luckily for me my yearly sojourn to visit my family in the Midwest coincided with me getting through these books.  Wendy + airplanes + layovers = I Get Reading Done!  I read three books alone just stuck on airplanes.  Hell, I read 6 books in 5 days - which is unheard of for me.

Think of all the reading I could get done if I didn't have to worry about paying the rent!  Oh, and staying clothed, fed, healthy - you know, the little things in life.

For those of you who have never done contest's interesting.  I like to do it every once in a while to keep myself honest.  It exposes me to books/authors who aren't in my usual wheelhouse and from a professional standpoint, it helps with my general reader's advisory skills.  I also try to look more at the "big picture" of a book.  It's not just the simple of matter of did I like it, or didn't I.  It's looking at the whole scope: pacing, writing, sense of place, plot, characters, yada yada yada.  When it comes to my own personal reading I'm a see book, read book, like (or dislike) book kinda gal.  Which is to say that isn't useful with contest judging - but it does involve a bit more than that.

So after going through 9 books, I'm spending the weekend thinking about who will be the "Top Pick" winner among the finalists I read.  I'll be honest - it's between two books.  And it's.....hard.  Both had a wonderful sense of place, both had great stories, both had great characterizations, and both of them had their faults as well.  I think I know which way I'm leaning at the moment, but I'm giving myself the holiday weekend to really make sure.

Since it's been well-advertised to contest enterers (is that a word?) that I am the "Top Pick" judge - I can't talk about specifics yet.  Frankly, I don't want to spoil it.  But here are some highlights (and lowlights.....) that should be vague enough.

Grades were as follows: 3 B, 3 C, 3 D.  Yes, 3 Ds.

The B grades were all over the map when it came to "tone."  Everything from angst to fluff.  Two of the books in this range are duking it out for my final pick as I type this.  The third one was very solid, but not as strong as the other two, hence I've already decided it won't be "the one."

The C reads were ultimate mixed bag reads.  There were really well-done aspects, and other things that were odd.  Like the book that had so much emotional angsty goodness, but then the "contemporary" characters would say something that made me wonder if they were stuck in the 1950s.  Another book had characters that drove me batty most of the time, but the plot was really good.  Then there was the one where the plot could have done something fresh and different, but instead fell into predictability.  Not outright "bad" reads - but also nothing epically special.

Now, the D reads.  Oh, the D reads.  One book was going just fine until one of the most teeth-grinding sex scenes I've read in a LONG time - not to mention the annoying sequel-bait.  Then there was the book that featured the most absurd plot I have ever read in a romance novel.  Ever.  And this is coming from the girl who has read some pretty terrible category romances in her day.  I'll see you your secret babies and amnesia and raise you this book I had to slog through.  And then there was the heroine that I loathed so much that I kept hoping the hero would come to his senses and run as if the hounds of Hell were nipping at his privates.  Words cannot express how much I hated her.  Haaaaattttteeeeeeeeedddddddd her.

So what can we take away from all of this.  Contest judging isn't that different from my regular reading.  The D numbers were high.  1/3?!  But given that the other 6 titles were split right down the middle of good to average?  Pretty typical, I think, for a lot of books.  I was hoping for an A read, but didn't find one.  But I did find authors I certainly will read more of, and the two books I'm currently debating as the "Top Pick" were both nice, pleasant surprises - books I'm not sure I would have found on my own.  Which at the end of the day?  Is really the reason that contest judging kicks ass.

And for those of you dying with curiosity?  The contest winner is going to be announced in October, I believe.  So maybe before we turn our calendars over to 2014 I'll be able to name some names.....


Keishon said...

Good job getting through this experience. I know I couldn't do it. I don't like to finish books I can't stand reading or are unreadable. I barely crack 50 books (if at all) a year so 100 is commendable/respectable.

Wendy said...

Keishon: I actually found this experience a bit "easier" than being a first round judge. Here it was read books, pick your "Top Pick." First round judging requires a bit more dissection....and filling out of score sheets :)

At this moment - not sure 100 is going to happen this year. I am spending a week in November stuck in the back woods (no Internet, no cable TV ::whimper::) - so that could push me closer to my goal. But it's been kind of a rough year reading-wise. Wavering mojo, hard to carve out time, and work has been sucking out what few brains I've got....

Keishon said...

It's good to have no technology for a short period of time. You might find that you like it :-) Sometimes I wonder what did we before the Internet? Probably spent more time reading and with family and friends. I just read where 7% of people still have dial up. TTYL.

Brie said...

My goal for the year is to review 100 books (including novellas and shorts) but I doubt I'll make it this year. I could never be a judge, though, because the pressure to read all the books would get to me. On the other hand, POWER! *evil laugh*

Anyway, great job! Now I want to know who wins ;-)

Wendy said...

Brie: The way things are looking for me at the moment, I don't think I'll hit 100 either. Well, unless I take December to start plowing through short stories ;)