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5 Lessons I Learned Judging the Fictionary Book of the Year Award Contest

Time Management | Perspective  | Process | Heart | Humility

Little did I know when I volunteered to judge the 2022 Fictionary Book of the Year Award (BoYA) contest that I’d learn about more than writing. Sixty-plus writers put their hearts and souls into a package including a blurb, synopsis, and up to 2000 initial words and entrusted them to our care and scrutiny.

I learned lessons I’ll apply to my creative writing, my work as an editor and book coach, and my day-to-day life. I couldn’t delve into the heartfelt words of so many writers and not feel the impact.

Here are my thoughts on what being a book contest judge taught me about time management, the nature of feedback, the paradox of story openings, the heart of writers, and the need to judge from a place of humility.

Managing big projects requires planning and steady progress

Each submission package included up to 2750 words, adding up to 118,250 words.

It’s not War and Peace (587,287 words), but it’s up there in Walden (114k), The Golden Compass (112k), Twilight (114k), and Pride and Prejudice (120k) territory.

Due care required that I read each submission several times. The workload was doable within the allotted two months, but the undertaking took planning and commitment—not unlike writing a novel. I could not have done my best work last minute.

Writing a novel takes time and effort—months or years. Fatigue and frustration are constant companions. A writer will draw from the best their brain, body, and talent can muster by maintaining a steady pace without rush or panic.

Successful story execution requires quality feedback.

The story in your head needs to come alive on the page. Getting the words on the page to match the story in your imagination is a huge challenge. You can only read something for the first time once, so skilled beta readers are invaluable when getting feedback on your work.

Novels are tricky beasts. After all, if the story already exists in your imagination, why does it take so long to type out and shape into something approximating the one fitting your vision?

I don’t have a quick answer for that one, but the reason relates to how the human brain filters out the mundane to avoid overload by the millions of data the world throws at it from moment to moment.

Familiarity allows the brain to slip into automatic mode. Have you ever driven a familiar long stretch of road and wondered where the last ten miles went? Can you read this article’s title? Breaking the Code: Why Yuor Barin Can Raed Tihs.

Our brains are code-breaking machines. We fill in the blanks based on context, experience, cognitive bias, and other processes still being investigated.

We skip over words, inferring meaning because we’ve seen them or something like them. This is why you can read a typographical error. This is why, on your own, you can’t be sure that you’ve successfully executed your intended story. You need feedback from others.

It takes time and effort to write something readers will enjoy. But if you want to improve your writing skills, you’ll need to share your writing with others. I appreciate the risk these entrants took to share their work, but as a result, their stories will become better.

Openings are difficult

Openings are deceptively tricky. Your characters’ lives and the story world timeline likely exist on a vast continuum, presenting a dizzying number of possible “once upon a time” moments. Ironically, writing the opening scene is easier to return to once you’ve finished the entire story because the story’s beginning has more to do with desired reader emotion than with time.

In his Masterclass session trailer, Neil Gaiman said: “The process of writing your second draft is making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”

If you accept that the opening you write may not be the opening you keep, you’ll be able to move forward through the entire story with a sense of curiosity and, later, having discovered points you want to set up, go back and craft a more compelling beginning.

Prologues are special cases. A prologue is a scene or set of scenes that aren’t directly part of the main storyline. They need to spark reader expectation and curiosity but can lead down a slippery slope of info dumping. It’s up to the reader to gauge whether starting with a prologue is a good choice. Prologues exist to set up compelling thematic, world, or character issues and benefit as much as any other openers from the author’s comprehension and command of the entire story.

Writing takes heart

There is a reason that humans have told and will continue to tell stories. We need to hear them, and we need to tell them.

We all know what stories are. We live them, learn from them and teach with them. Yet, that knowledge does not guarantee an ability to create them. You need not look further than that friend in your circle that always gets punchlines wrong. It takes skill to tell a joke. It takes timing, practice, and skill to tell a good story.

We spend years of childhood learning to read and reading to learn. Writing craft can be learned. Writing a novel takes a certain amount of passion and dedication because the words seldom arrive on demand for anyone. Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring TED talk discusses our elusive creative genius and suggests we all have one.

A good novelist needs to know how to write well and also how to write about things that matter. Writers are remarkable people willing to put themselves out there and share their thoughts and ideas with others. Writing takes heart, and I saw that in abundance in the Fictionary Book of the Year submissions.

Judging others requires humility

It’s best to read with a sense of discovery, not from a position of knowing. It’s also more enjoyable. I never completely discarded my editing hat; instead, I supercharged my reader hat.

Editors, after all, are stand-ins for the reader. We’ve developed an eye for detail, style, and a knack for knowing when something works and doesn’t. Above all, being an effective book contest judge takes a willingness to look beyond the surface of a piece of writing and see its potential.

I appreciate each Book of the Year author’s heartfelt submissions and applaud their efforts. They showed up.

Post Written by Pamela Hines

Pamela is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor and a certified Story Grid editor. She will combine her Story Grid knowledge with technology and use Fictionary StoryCoach software to provide you with an exceptional story edit.





Fictionary will be hosting the Book of the Year Award again in 2023. To enter, come join the Fictionary community and get to know other writers and editors.