Here comes the (writing) judge

When people learn I serve as a judge for an annual self publishing contest sponsored by a national writing magazine, they always want to know what it’s like.  My first response is that it’s a lot of work for very little pay. On average, I review 50 entries; the time involved probably works out to about $5.00 per hour. Each book must be evaluated in numerous categories: structure, plot, characterization, grammar, and book design. After those grades are calculated, I must write a couple hundred words on what the author did well and what needs improvement.

Grammar is the easiest category to stamp a grade on; either the writer knows the basics or she doesn’t. You’d be surprised how many people go through the time and expense of having a book self published without checking it for typos and grammatical errors. The most common mistakes I see are with punctuation:  no commas or too many commas, overuse of exclamation points, semi-colons where colons belong. Then there are those who overuse italic and/or bold print (often the same ones who abuse exclamation points). To me, these are gimmicks that signal a lack of faith in one’s ability. One of the most important rules writers must follow is to trust our readers. If we write in an intelligent, engaging manner, our readers will get it—no gimmicks necessary.

Characterization is pretty straightforward. Either dialogue is fresh and believable or stale and stilted. The protagonist is likable and/or interesting or plastic and forgettable. Secondary characters help move the plot forward or take up space.

Structure and plot are more difficult to assess, but when either or both is lacking, everything else about the book becomes pretty irrelevant. The most common mistakes in this area appear in non-fiction entries. A book on ice fishing that spends half the narrative talking about the author’s childhood in Maine (cold winters!). A memoir that devotes countless pages to everyday events (lunch, a favorite dress or toy, a mundane conversation). A marketing seminar masquerading as a self-improvement book. In fiction, a structural problem is usually related to overwriting—explaining every line of dialogue with a line of introspection, going into back story for pages on end, repeating the same event through different characters’ points of view, dwelling on too many sensory details. All of these methods do little but serve to slow the story. And guess what? When the story slows, readers lose interest—and fast.

Grading a book’s design is somewhat a matter of personal taste (What’s gaudy to some might be gorgeous to others). What’s important for the purpose of review is that the chosen cover art fits the book’s subject matter and the space on the back cover is utilized as a promotional tool—blurbs by other writers praising the book, a teaser or short synopsis (never give away the ending!), an author bio. What doesn’t belong in that space is a series of blurbs by the author himself, praising his own work (and yes, this is a common error, especially by professionals with PhDs and/or Masters.) Inside, the text itself must be sharp and easy to read. Fancy fonts don’t cut it. And size matters. If the text is too large, say 14 point and up, I get the feeling the author is trying to make the book appear as if it has more content than it does. If the font is less than 9, I’m guessing the author knows her book is too long and probably in need of a major edit.

By now you’ll probably agree with my initial assessment that judging is a lot of work for $5 an hour. So why do it? Because despite the majority of books that are filled with some, and often times many, of the errors noted above, I always come across a couple of gems. Books that deserve to be picked up by a conventional publisher so they can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience. If my recommendation (which is passed on to a finalist judge) helps even one of these authors fulfill his or her dream, I consider my effort time well spent.

Have Camel, Will Travel

–guest post by Sylvia Fowler

Male genitals are requirement for sexual performance, fathering a child, and hormone balance. In Saudi Arabia, they are also the basic requirements for a driver’s license. Individual habits aside, the driver is not required to do anything with his genitals while driving. He just has to have them. Concepts like drivers’ ed, age, and stipulated hours of training with a licensed adult driver are all considered part of nonsensical and Godless Western bureaucracy. Once a boy can see over the dashboard, he may trundle over to the Saudi equivalent of the DMV.

During the 1980s and 90s, when I lived in Saudi Arabia as the wife of a Saudi , writers discussed the subject of allowing women to drive in both English and Arabic newspapers.  Recently my older son asked me, “Do you think women will be allowed to drive soon in Jeddah?” I have to forgive him for thinking there is a chance; he is, after all, in his twenties. To him, the debate seems to be reaching a crescendo.

I know exactly why the debate percolates on in the Saudi press. It is a carrot dangled in front of the educated. So long as a subject is discussed, people will not press too much. In the U.S. Senate, the technique is called filibustering. [Those women who have made peace with living forever in Saudi Arabia support the restriction against female drivers, underlining the age-old truth, “When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”]

Little has changed in the net of proposed restrictions that have been cast out for allowing women to drive. Female drivers would be permitted to drive during daylight hours ending in the afternoon, so as to get to work, take the children to school, pick them up and get home again. Somehow they would be expected to get all their shopping done in between these times. Under no circumstances would women be allowed to drive in the dark. The most interesting condition about allowing women to drive, even in discussion, is the requirement of the face veil.

Since women can’t see when they walk, why should they see when they drive?  I stopped holding my breath for the emergence of female drivers in Saudi Arabia long ago.  I like breathing, and I thank God to still be doing it.

The Fervor of Faith in Literature

Be dedicated to literature, if you say you love it. There will be those who snigger, who qualify you as a failure (for having failed to produce $ from your love), who roll their eyes, or who try to get you to do anything else on God’s earth.

In fact, love of literature, that fine and beautiful thing, could be compared to faith—particularly faith in One God.  Those with faith in God may feel that others often see them as wasting their time/energy.  Yet their faith uplifts, giving patience, purpose, humility and perseverance. The joy must be in the effort itself, the dedication to a higher calling.

Such is literature—a higher calling, which some will abuse or misuse for the sake of their egos. Their works will, ultimately, be lost or stand testimony to misuse.

If you are dedicated to your writing, and send it out to publishers who reject you, you will join the ranks of the rejected who had faith in their love of literature. The number of rejections follows each name:

Pearl S. Buck – The Good Earth – 14 times

Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead – 12 times

Patrick Dennis- Auntie Mame – 15 times

Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 20 times

Joseph Heller –  Catch-22 – 22  times (!)

Mary Higgins Clark – first short story – 40 times

Alex Haley – before Roots – 200 rejections

Robert Persig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – 121 times

John Grisham – A Time to Kill – 15 publishers and 30 agents (he ended up publishing it himself)

Dr. Seuss – 24 times (Isn’t that hysterical? Publishers always say they want ‘fresh, new voices.’)

Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections (Go figure. The Old West has been considered a romantic fantasy since the pioneer days.)

Jack London – 600 before his first story (Come on, all of our first stories were lousy. Maybe he sent in the same 10 early stories to 60 places.)

John Creasy – 774 rejections before selling his first story.  He went on to write 564 books, using fourteen names. (Back up a moment here. 564 books? You mean kind of like Clive Cussler or James Michener? James Michener had a known staff, and there is a group on Facebook that does NOT believe Cussler has time to write all those books—himself—especially as [see Facebook again] he apparently runs around as a celebrity judge to decide winners at cooking contests.)

Jerzy Kosinski – 13 agents and 14 publishers rejected his best-selling novel when he submitted it under a different name, including Random House, which had originally published it.  (I think this is the funniest one. Reminds me of another writer who sent in a novel by Jane Austen, to see what would happen. It was rejected. Only one editor even recognized the material.)

Stephen King’s first four novels were rejected. This guy from Maine sent in this novel over the transom, said Bill Thompson, his former editor at Doubleday. Mr. Thompson, sensing something there, asked to see subsequent novels, but still rejected the next three. However, King withstood the rejection, and Mr. Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleague’s lack of enthusiasm, for $2,500. It was called Carrie.

(Speaking of Carrie, according to another source, King’s wife fished it out of the trash can, where Stephen had dumped it in frustration. She thought it was good.)

During his entire lifetime, Herman Melville’s timeless classic, Moby Dick, sold only 3,715 copies.

(Many thanks to

The Drive to Succeed

I used to consider myself a very driven person, the type who maps out goals and does whatever it takes to reach them. Back in the late 80s when I first started writing on a serious basis, meaning I actually believed I could write a book and sell it, I became pretty consumed. I read and read and read. Books on writing, books on editing, books on marketing. Competitive titles within my chosen genre and outside of it. Often times, I was reading three or four books at the same time. In between those efforts, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I was determined to make it as a writer.

Although my determination hasn’t wavered over the years, it has mellowed. I reached my initial goal of selling a book with the 1999 Nixon-Presley title, and followed that up with Hoop Lore in 2007. What I haven’t done is sell a novel or reach the point where I can make a steady living as a writer. Maybe someday I will, but if not, I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life bemoaning my so-called failures.  

Everyone has goals. Whether those goals are obtainable or not depends largely on how hard we’re willing to work to achieve them. Or more to the point, whether we’re willing to make achieving them the most important thing in our lives. Elvis made music the most important thing in his life and the lifestyle surrounding that thing killed him at 42. Kobe Bryant makes basketball the most important thing is his life. Kobe seems too obsessed with being and staying the best NBA player in the world to get swallowed up by the fast-paced lifestyle that surrounds him the way Elvis did, but I often find myself wondering whether number 24 ever has time for anything but thinking, breathing, and playing basketball.

Say an angel drops out of the sky and offers me the chance for a do-over in which I become a bestselling author. Do I jump at the chance? Sure, until said angel adds that the do-over entails erasing everyone and everything else that has made me who I am today. “You’ll have to concentrate 100% on your writing,” the angel explains. “You won’t have time to get married or raise a family. There’ll be none of those needy, furry, four-legged creatures running all around the house saturating your carpets with hair and your heart with love. You won’t spend sunny mornings puttering around in the garden. You’ll never get addicted to Elvis Presley or the NBA, and you certainly won’t waste your evenings watching old TV shows on DVD.

Say what? No Jody? No Katie or Carrie? No Jose or Michael? No Dr. Kookiehead??? (Please see my Photo Flap page for more information.) Not get hooked on Elvis? No NBA? And what was that about gardening? (“No need,” says the angel, “you live in a condo.”) A condo! No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. (“Yep. A condo with no TV.”) What? Surely this angel is out of its mind. No basketball? No Mary Tyler Moore and Chuckles the Clown? No J.R. and Dallas? No Star Trek? No Battlestar Galactica? And, oh my God, no re-watching every single episode of LOST four or five more times? Seriously?

“Time’s a wasting,” says the angel, tugging on its wing. “Ten seconds and counting.”

I need only one. “Thanks,” I say, nursing a twinge of regret, “but on second thought, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out the first time around.”