Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.


Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series--Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011) and Trapline (2014). Trapline won the 2015 award in genre fiction from the Colorado Authors League and the 2015 Colorado Book Award in mysteries. The fourth book in the series, Lake of Fire, was published in September, 2015. Kirkus Reviews called it "irresistible." More about Mark on his website.

2 thoughts on “Here Comes the Judge

  1. I was a first time judge for two writing contests this year and found the job a whole lot harder than I expected. You want to score entries honestly, but encourage beginning writers to keep on writing. It’s a delicate balance.

  2. I’ve also noticed it’s a bit like judging an art show – the longer you stay with the works, the more you’re apt to see things that elude you during the first pass-through. I think the best gift a judge can give the contestants is extra time. Read and re-read.

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