I've been judging Romance Writers of America chapter writing contests and the Golden Heart, RWA National's annual contest for unpublished writers, since 2005 or so, but as a new member of PAN (the Published Authors Network), this was my first year judging the Rita, RWA National's published contest.
In late January I came home to a UPS box laden with eight romances in the three categories I'd volunteered to judge--six of one, one apiece of the other two. (The category list is here, and I'm not going to say which three I judged, in the interest of scrupulously honoring my confidentiality agreement. All I'll tell you is that it wasn't Regency Historical, since that's where A Marriage of Inconvenience is entered.)
Though I'd only volunteered to judge categories I at least occasionally read, none of the books were ones I would've chosen to read on my own, and I'd never read any of the authors before. One or two names looked familiar, but that's it. My goal was to read an entry or two per week, spacing them out with other books for leisure reading to keep me fresh and dividing them up so that I didn't read two books that looked similar in theme and style in a row.
My eight books were all over the map in terms of quality, in my opinion, and I scored them accordingly. (In the great debate over whether to use the full 1-9 range or not, I tend to fall on the "full range" side, rather than what I think of as the "all the children are above average" camp. Wow me, and I'll give you a 9. Satisfy me, and you'll get an eight-point-something. But if your character motivations make no sense or your writing is awkward or the plot logic just isn't, I'm not one to say, "Oh, well, it's good enough to be published, so it still gets a 7.")
One thing that struck me was that how much I expected to like the book based on its cover design and blurb had no impact whatsoever on my eventual score. The two books I expected to like most because they seemed most in line with what I usually read ended up being my least favorite of the lot. The ideas were good, but the execution wasn't there. However, three books that I expected would be a chore to read ended up being genuine pleasures–and I was happy to give them high scores for being such pleasant surprises.
I'll be intrigued, once the finalists are announced on March 26, to see if any of the entries I judged are on the list. If any of those three I especially enjoyed are there, I'll be cheering them on at the award ceremony this summer in Anaheim. And if those two that didn't live up to my expectations make it–well, it wouldn't be the first time I was the dropped low score as a contest judge.