I’m planning to spend today judging romance writing contest entries. It’s time-consuming and headache-inducing, but over the last couple of years I’ve discovered that analyzing other unpublished writers’ work is a great way to improve my own.
I guesstimate that on average it takes me about three or four hours per entry from first read to submission of score-sheet. Multiply that by four or five manuscripts, and you’re talking about a serious investment of time. It’s relatively quick, and usually great fun, to read an entry and reach a first impression. Are the scenes well-written? Do I care about the characters? Would I read on? It’s much harder to pinpoint what it is about the writing that makes me feel that way, and harder still to find the right words to give that feedback to the author in an honest, courteous and professional manner.
The last time I judged this particular contest I was lucky enough to read two very good entries back-to-back that made me think hard about what I’m trying to achieve in my own WIP.
The first story was beautifully written and it slid smoothly into my brain. The world was fascinating, somewhere I’d never visited but could imagine perfectly thanks to the deftly drawn descriptions. I loved the characters, major and minor, and I totally bought in to their relationships to one another. The dialogue sounded exactly right for those people in that town. The pace was snappy, and all the usual building blocks for the genre were neatly put in place. I had a great time reading, and if the rest of the book had been under my nose, I’d have kept going. But it wasn’t, so I read the opening scenes of the second story instead.
Entry Two was engaging, though the prose wasn’t as polished as Entry One. I jolted a bit over the first page, and then I adjusted my reading to allow for the bumps because by then I was so engrossed in the story that it didn’t matter. The opening scene was dramatic, but the best thing about it was its impact on the heroine. She wasn’t in immediate danger, but in that moment it was abundantly clear that life as she’d known it was over. She had to act, quickly and decisively, and she did. I liked her immediately. I liked her style and her resourcefulness. She made an interesting (surprising but smart) choice. I knew it would push her to the limit and I wanted to see her make it work. And when the story switched to a new chapter, I liked the antagonist. His mission was natural, believable and powerful, and it put him on an unavoidable collision course with the heroine. They hadn’t met by the time the pages ended, but it was inevitable that their paths would cross, and that a spectacular power struggle would ensue. I was dying to know what happened next, and if the rest of the book had been available for sale, I’d have bought it on the spot.
It wasn’t until I read Entry Two that I understood how lukewarm my reaction to Entry One had been. Given the quality of the writing, I should have been desperate to read on, but I wasn’t strongly invested, and eventually I realized it was because in Entry One, the critical events affected the heroine indirectly. She was involved, and I felt sure that she would slowly be drawn in until she was at the center of affairs, but in the pages I read, she wasn’t challenged. Interesting things were clearly going to happen to her and the people she loved, but at that early stage in proceedings she could have walked away, and so could I.
I think this may have been the moment I decided not to take any more craft classes until I’m satisfied the content of my WIP is as powerful as I can make it. If my comma placement is iffy and I don’t always capitalize names correctly (guilty on both counts), so be it. Of course I want my writing to be technically sound. I’d love to get my prose as clean and sparkly as Writer One. But if I have to choose, I want to be Writer Two.
Which of your favorite authors would you describe as a smooth writer, an addictive storyteller, or (best of all) both?