Jilly: Observations of a Contest Judge

Observations of a Contest JudgeI finally finished my last round of contest judging for this year. Not before time 🙂

I try to give all entries two or three reads and offer honest, constructive, actionable feedback. It’s time-consuming but from a purely selfish perspective it’s worth the effort. I learn something valuable every time. Last year I read a couple of outstanding entries. I posted about that recently (Storyteller v Smooth Writer).

This year I’ve read a lot of competent writing, grammatically correct, properly punctuated, with interesting characters and an intriguing premise. I don’t think I’ve read a single story that would tempt me to keep reading by the end of the pages, let alone a book that I’d shell out money for.


One of the great things about contests is that most of them ask for the opening pages of the book. Getting the story started is one of the most important challenges as well as one of the hardest, and it’s amazing how often good writers make basic mistakes.

Of course, it goes without saying that good writing has guidelines, not rules, and sometimes an author might knowingly break them with breathtaking success. I didn’t read any of those this year. Below is a list of the problems that tripped me up over and over again:

What’s the story promise?
By the end of the first page – ideally much sooner – I should know what kind of story to expect. Whether it’s cozy, scary, sexy, emotional; light and funny or dark and disturbing; whether it zips along at lightning pace or pauses to smell the flowers every few paragraphs. The promise made in the opening scene should be kept throughout the rest of the pages. Most of all, I should be invited to hazard a guess about what will happen by the end of the story. Will the heroine fulfill the conditions and inherit her great-uncle’s mansion, or will the hero keep the promise he made to his dying mother and level the place? If I read 20 pages and I can’t tell whether it’s a cozy mystery full of sparkling banter or a heart-thumping snarky suspense littered with corpses, that’s a problem.

Whose story is it?
Even if the story is a romance and the word count is evenly distributed between the hero and the heroine, one of them must own the spine of the story. The story could be Julia’s lifelong dream of starting an orphanage in her great-uncle’s mansion and her attempts to meet the conditions of the will while being thwarted at every turn by Alexander; it could be Alexander’s determination to acquire and destroy the house where his beloved aunt was seduced, corrupted and murdered, and his fury at sweet-natured, smiling Julia’s seemingly unstoppable plans for the tainted house. It can’t be both. Either Julia or Alexander must own the dominant plotline and the major turning points, or the reader will get an unsatisfying muddle of a story.

Who are the main characters?
As a reader, I assume the first character I meet will be the one who owns the story. That’s the person I’m conditioned to focus on. If the hero is a military man and you introduce two of his charismatic fellow officers before you get to him, or the heroine plays in a string quartet and nothing singles her out from her fellow musicians, I am going to stop in my tracks, shake my head and try to figure out who is important here.

Backstory and Infodump
There’s a lot the reader needs to know in order to understand the story. The temptation is to try to put it all in the opening pages, like a kind of briefing note. Today’s reader doesn’t have the patience to sit through a public service announcement. The trick is to give them just enough information to get the story going, and then to sneak in the rest so that they ingest it without even noticing. I read a couple of really interesting entries where the (fascinating) characters were so busy reflecting on what was about to happen that nothing had actually happened in the now by the end of the entry. If I’d read those pages on an AMZ ‘look inside’ preview, I’d have moved right along.

Start in the Right Place
Another way to try to tell the reader what that author thinks they need to know is to start the pages early and build up to the moment the story really starts. The author may need to write those scenes, to get them out of her head in order to arrive smoothly at the now, but the reader (probably) doesn’t care. She’ll have given up by the time you hit the big scene. You could put the build-up on your website or in your newsletter as an ‘extra’, just don’t start your book with it.

These People Need Goals
It’s hard to care about a hero or heroine when you don’t know what they want.

They Also Need Agency
If the heroine has a goal, she has to pursue it actively. She has to drive the story, to make it happen; she can’t just let the plot happen to her.

Where’s the Conflict?
If I get to the end of the pages and I don’t know what would prevent the hero or heroine from achieving their goal, then the story is over. There’s no reason to read on, nothing to discover.

I could go on and on – asshat heroes with no hint of redeemability, extreme headhoppping that left me dazed and confused, one-dimensional bad guys – maybe next time. Right now I need to go back and read the opening pages of my WIP. I’m a little scared about what I might find 😉 .

Have you read anything recently with really memorable (good or bad) opening pages?

7 thoughts on “Jilly: Observations of a Contest Judge

  1. *The Pursuit of Love* starts out with a description of an old family portrait — but by the third sentence, we are introduced to the entrenching tool Uncle Matthew used to kill eight Germans (it’s hanging demurely over the teatable). By the end of page two, casually worked into the first person narrative, there’s fire, a near-drowning, an attempted suicide, distorted sex facts, and wished-for patricide/matricide. It sets a very gossipy sort of tone for the book, but we know we are not in for some boring argument about choosing drapes for Mother’s retirement home or Aunt Sue’s smelly cat . . . we are going to get a superior, dramatic brand of gossip.

    In “Penric’s Mission”, we got the beginnings of a “young spy in a tropical clime” sort of story . . . and by the end of the first chapter, everything had flipped. And the story kept flipping into something else. I think we “knew” what sort of story we were getting into, so kept reading for that, and then when our “knowledge” was turned upside down and the story took a sharp turn, the story’s new aspect was still something we knew about from a hundred other stories — except then IT turned into something new. In the process, we got a wonderful, textured crazy quilt of a story — perfectly logical and harmonious, but I certainly couldn’t have told you at the end of 20 pages that it was going to end up the way it did.

    I think readers do need to feel safe and secure (in the kind of story I want to tell, at least). They have to be able to predict that the story is going into a good place, but when it changes, the writer still cushions them and makes them feel safe. The words I use to describe this reminds me of a Disney ride, which I think is a good analogy. We have to be GOING someplace, not just sitting and anticipating. We have to be moving and anticipating.

    Quite honestly, analyzing the first three pages of *The Pursuit of Love* startled me. They went down as smooth as honey when I first read them; I didn’t realize there was so much absolute dark and insanity contained within them. It’s a very neat trick that I’d love to be able to copy.

  2. Ugh. Agency. That’s the bit that’s missing from Girl’s Best Friend. Hoping my beta group will have some good suggestions to remedy when we meet on Wednesday.

    • That’s my problem with my WIP right now, too, Jeanne. My protag has a solid goal and the antag a solid plan to block her, but for the moment the protag is just biding her time and developing fun and interesting relationships with other characters…I know what actions/agency she’ll have after the big midpoint reveal, but have to get her butt in gear in the first half. (Fortunately, I’m working on backstory/origin scenes, and only have about 4 actual manuscript scenes completed, so not too far down a bad path.)

      Great reminders, Jilly! I will be going back over my opening to look for weaknesses in the other areas you mention as well. Just adding one to the list: I’ve started two different books recently that have a high-drama opening, then the next chapter goes back weeks or months to ‘start’ the story. I guess because either a) the first scene started where the story should start and the author couldn’t figure how to drop in necessary foundational info as you suggested, or b) the true start of the story is just a snorefest. Either way, no thank you! Those were two books I closed and crossed off my TBR list. Life is too short ;-)!

      • Snap, Nancy! Today I also read a story that had an active opening scene and then rolled the story back for a whole chapter of internal reflection to recap the past events that led up to the ‘now’ of the story. I got bored and disoriented and did not read on, but from what I read I think the bucket of backstory could have made an interesting starting point. I wonder if the author thought it just wasn’t gripping enough, so she went for the high-octane opening scene and then had to backtrack to the true start of the story.

    • Agency. I hear you, Jeanne. My heroine Alexis is in big trouble, and it’s all too easy to throw bad stuff at her, let her react, and think that’s okay. I’m trying really hard to have her make things happen, not just have things happen to her.

      Good luck with the beta group meeting!

  3. It’s so easy to say, “I know this stuff” and so hard to find the application or see the omissions in our work. Anything that helps us analyze and identify strengths and weaknesses is a huge help. Contest judging sounds like it’s just the ticket! And I bet that those entrants are happy for your thoughtful critiques.

    • Receiving critical feedback is never easy, even if it’s on the money. I hope ‘my’ entrants find my feedback worth their trouble. And as you say, so easy to think I know better, so hard to see the strengths and weaknesses in my own WIP. I feel very lucky that I can ask the Ladies whenever I need a tough-but-fair beta read 🙂

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