As promised, today's blog is from P.J. Coldren, one of the judges for Malice's writing contest. Here's what she has to say about the process and increasing your chances of moving up.
I've been asked to guest blog and I thought I'd write about something I've been doing for a long time: I'm a preliminary judge for the (St. Martin's Press) Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition for the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel. I'd like to start off by saying that these are my opinions only, and not anything authorized or vetted by St. Martin's or the Malice Domestic Convention or Committee. I've been reading manuscripts for this contest for about twenty years, every year except the first, and I believe I've got the most seniority at the job. But I've been wrong before.
How did I get this gig? I volunteered. Luci "The Poison Lady" Zahray convinced me to attend my first mystery convention, Malice Domestic II. Ruth Cavin asked at the banquet for volunteers to be preliminary judges, and I thought, "I can do that!" So I wrote out my qualifications (a BA in English Lit from a small liberal arts college and twenty years of reading mysteries) and somehow got them to Ruth. It was that simple. Now I just send an e-mail to Ruth's assistant, telling her I'll read again if they want me to.
How does the contest work? Assume you have a mystery manuscript. You write to St. Martin's and tell them you are interested in entering the contest. They send you a copy of the "Rules for the 200? Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition for the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel". On another sheet of paper there is the name and address of a judge and this: "I have read, understood and agree to the foregoing rules. I affirm that the enclosed manuscript is original and was written by me. I further affirm that I have never published a traditional mystery novel of the type described in the rules." You sign this form, filling out the rest of the information requested (your name and address, telephone and e-mail, and the title of your manuscript). You send the form and your manuscript to the judge. And then you wait.
I don't know how other judges do things. I only know the system I've worked out over the last twenty years. I request that manuscripts sent to me be punched for a three-ring binder; this makes it easy for me to carry a manuscript around with me. I know that this is unusual; apparently agents and editors don't request this. Most of "my" manuscripts are sent as I request. When I get a manuscript, I log it into two separate files on my computer. One file lists the authors in alphabetical order, with the year of their entry. One file lists the entries by year, then by author and title. I'm a trifle obsessive, I know. I send an e-mail to the author, telling them the manuscript has arrived, or I will return postcards with that information, if provided. Then I put the manuscript in a binder with the identifying information to the back. I don't read the cover letter and I don't look at the author's previous writing experience. I want to pick up a manuscript and not know anything about the author. Then I put the binder on the floor in the living room, out of the flow of traffic, where all the other manuscripts I get will join it.
I don't start reading manuscripts until after the deadline has passed and I have all the manuscripts I'm going to get. I have, in the best of times, a book-a-day habit. If I get your manuscript in June or July, which does happen, and I read it right away, the odds I'll remember it in January are slim. And I really don't want to have to reread any more than I absolutely have to.
OK, it's time to start reading. There is no rhyme or reason to which binder I pick; sometimes I ask my husband to pick one, sometimes I read all the white binders first, sometimes I add all the numbers of the date together and grab that number binder off the pile. I used to read every manuscript all the way through, no matter how bad it was. I was cured of that the year I received over fifty manuscripts. Now I read the first fifty pages. If I pass the fifty page mark and want to read more, I keep reading until I don't want to read any more. Fifty pages gives me enough of a book to tell if the technical skills are there, if the characters are people I want to read about, if the pace is going the way it should. Sometimes I can tell a lot sooner than fifty pages that the book isn't going to cut it, but unless it's really dreadfully bad, I give it fifty pages.
I used to feel guilty about not finishing a manuscript. Not any more. I have a limited amount of time. I work full-time. I have an elderly parent living near me, with the concomitant demands upon my time. I review for several on-line review sites and a print magazine. I read manuscripts for two small publishing companies. I have a husband who is wonderful and understands my need to read, but still wants my attention now and then. There are better ways I can spend my limited time than reading a book that I know will not have any chance at all to win the contest. And that is the bottom line. That is what Ruth wants to see from me: a manuscript that I think can win the contest.
What do I look for in a manuscript? Ah, that's the hard part. I want a main character that intrigues me. S/he doesn't have to be someone I'd like to be, or someone I admire, but s/he has to be interesting. Someone with a brain. Someone with character, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I'm a little tired of the drunk muddling through things, solving the problem in spite of themselves. I'm very tired of the "too stupid to live" character, who makes one bad choice after another and solves the problem only after putting themselves (and possible others) in mortal peril. I like a character with a believable reason for getting involved in a murder. Yes, I know the rules don't specify murder, but that's what has won in the past. Realistically, that's what will probably win again.
I'd also like some plot. I don't expect convoluted and contrived endings with more twists than a box of pretzels, although one good twist at the end is never a bad thing. I don't like shotgun plots - like shotgun houses, I can see the end from the beginning and there is nothing to distract me. So some sub-plots are required. A love interest is nice, if it fits the characters. Most people don't live in a vacuum, so the people in the lives of the main character are fair game for a sub-plot or two. I really like being able to look back at the end of a book and see where the author has led me astray; this implies that if I had been paying attention, I could have solved the puzzle along with the person doing the detecting. This also implies that someone IS doing some detecting. So having the criminal confess at the end, for no real reason, doesn't work for me. Neither does detecting by committee.
What else? I like to learn something from every book I read. Doesn't have to be the key to world peace, or anything incredibly erudite. But I do like to take something new away from a book.
What do I not like? The guidelines say nothing whatsoever about the presentation of the manuscript. And rightly so. It’s the story that matters. Having said that, I will also say this: anything that jerks me out of the story is a bad thing. It would behoove most people to have someone read their manuscript solely for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you, as a writer, don’t care enough about your manuscript to send it out looking absolutely perfect . . . it’s akin to going to a job interview with your teeth unbrushed, your hair unwashed, and your clothing dirty. I’ll give your manuscript the same fifty page shot I give all the others. If your story is good enough, I’ll keep reading. But when it comes down to the final cut, and the competition is tough, that "jerked out of the story" feeling may subconsciously affect my reactions. I’d like to think not, I hope not. Is that a risk you, as a writer, want to take?
Once I've read all the manuscripts, I have two, sometimes three, stacks. One very tall stack is the non-contenders. One very short stack consists of the books I think might have a shot. That stack is usually three to six manuscripts. I take these contenders and read the first chapter and the last chapter again. If I can remember, in fairly complete detail, what happens in between - that's good. This filter cuts my short stack at least in half. Than I think about how I feel about the remaining two or three books. I can't tell you how the final cut is made -- it's some quality or another that sets one book apart. That book is my contest pick. I usually send two books to New York, the contest pick and the second best book. I write a letter to Ruth, telling her what I am sending and why. I send copies of the relevant portions of this letter to the author(s). I send out the form letter given to me by St. Martin’s to all the ones that didn’t make it. And then I wait. Judges usually learn who the winners are at the Malice Domestic convention in the DC area every year, along with all the other attendees. Sometimes the winner will let his or her judge know, but not always.
The occasional third stack is usually only one book. I invariably get some manuscripts that don't meet the criteria. Sometimes it's because the main character is a private eye or a policeperson. Sometimes the plot involves the Mafia or international espionage. Sometimes it's just not the kind of book I think can win the contest. Whatever the reason, this oddball book is well written, good enough for me to send it on to Ruth as a non-contest submission. I know of two books I sent on that have been published this way.
I've been fortunate enough to pick three winners in my years as a judge. Cathy Pickens, Vincent O'Neil, and David Skibbins had me as their judge. I've also been instrumental in the careers of Darryl Wimberley and Eugenia Lovett West, although they did not win the contest. What did all these manuscripts had in common? Once I started them, I did not want to put them down for any appreciable length of time until I finished them. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I usually have two or three of those each year, but not always. There have been two years, I think, where I did not send anything on to New York.
What do I get paid for this? A book. The winner of the contest for the year I judge. So if you are thinking about doing this for the pay, think again. Why do I do it? Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I know. I'm always amazed at how many ways people can kill somebody, at how many motives for murder there are, at the reasons "normal" people have for getting involved in something so out of the realm of most people's lives. I delight in making a difference in someone's life, as I've done for David Skibbins and Cathy Pickens and Vinnie O'Neil and Darryl Wimberley and Eugenia West. I do it for the friends I've made. I met Peg Herring because she sent me a manuscript and I was thrilled to find a "mystery person" in my neck of the woods. I do it because I love to read, and I get to read books that very few people have read. Sometimes this isn't a good thing, but every job has bad moments. Over the twenty years I've been doing this, I have to say that the overall quality of the writing has improved. This is a definite plus.
What advice to I have for writers? Give it your best shot. Write the best story you can. Submit it. If you don’t win, keep writing. Rework your manuscript if you are fortunate enough to get any suggestions from your judge. We are discouraged from giving commentary; apparently there have been writers in the past that have not appreciated the comments they received. I will occasionally volunteer to give comments, if the author is interested. I know of at least two or three authors who didn’t win the first time, or the second time, but kept trying and did win. Or wound up getting their manuscript accepted at another publishing house. Keep writing.
As I said at the beginning, this is how I do this. Other judges have their own systems, their own way of doing things. I speak only for myself, and I sincerely hope that in writing this I haven’t committed some unspeakable faux pas, some gaffe that will cost me the job in the future. Yeah, sometimes in the middle of January, when I’ve read four lousy manuscripts in a row, I’m not so thrilled. Sometimes, when I’m faced with picking one or two manuscripts out of five really good ones, I’m frustrated. And yet, every year, I volunteer again. It’s become part of my life and I can’t imagine not doing it. To be a part of something that has given me so much joy throughout my life is truly wonderful. To give back to the mystery community, which has given me so much, is a delight.