Jilly: Impressed and Inspired

This week I read the opening pages of a terrific story by a new-to-me author. Sadly I can’t offer you a recommendation because the pages were a contest entry. I don’t even know the author’s name yet, though I’ll be checking the contest website when the finalists are announced.

I try to judge at least one writing contest per year—mostly because in the past I’ve received super-useful feedback on my own entries, but also because I learn a lot. It typically takes me four to six hours per entry to read the pages, decide on the scores, and write the comments. Many entries are by writers still in the process of learning the basics, but I’ve never read one totally without merit. The challenge is to identify and acknowledge the writer’s strengths, isolate the areas that require work, and make constructive, actionable suggestions without rewriting. It’s hard to do well but even if the pages aren’t my cup of tea it never feels like a thankless task. Whether or not the entrant appreciates my efforts, I get valuable food for thought and most of my insights are applicable to my own writing.

This contest is the first time ever I finished an entry in under an hour. Almost immediately I started reading for pleasure. Then I sipped my coffee and mentally wrote the rest of the book. After that I got to work, which mainly required a heartfelt but most un-judge-like squee. And then I set to thinking about what had made my reading experience so good.

The writing was smooth—not complex, showy or in any way distracting. Just simple, clear and so easy to read the story slipped directly into my brain.

The world building was fabulous. Everything about the story—the setting, descriptions, word choices, dialogue, actions, social conventions and characters’ worldview—was consistent, and all the choices strengthened and reinforced one another.

The main characters were sympathetic and relatable. They didn’t exactly have goals—more like compelling needs that arose from their personal situations.

Both characters behaved with restraint, which created a lovely tension given the emotional urgency of their positions. Everything was in the subtext or shown by their actions. It gave the reader plenty of work to do, but the characters and their motivations were so clearly drawn it was easy to decide what I thought they should/would do.

The potential conflict was compelling, because the obvious way to solve the external conflict was the choice that would create the greatest internal conflict.

The way I think the author will wrap up the book gives the characters a resolution that is broader than just a declaration of love and commitment to one another. It gives them a complete and satisfying life together.

I guess this author is very close to publication. I really hope so anyway. And I hope the rest of her writing is as strong as the pages I read. In the meantime, reading her work has left me inspired and thinking hard about my own stories. That’s a win/win that makes me very happy 🙂 .

Did you discover any new authors, published or unpublished, lately?

6 thoughts on “Jilly: Impressed and Inspired

    • Ooh, nice! I really like Grace Burrowes, and the good news is that she has a large backlist so you’ll have lots more titles to choose from when you’ve finished your current read!

  1. A couple of months ago, I read a lot of new-to-me authors, and at least one was a debut author — Mimi Grace.

    These days, I’ve shifted over to nonfiction for a bit. I read a fantastic book about negotiation called Never Split the Difference — what makes it great is these wonderful anecdotes about fighting kidnappers! Now that’s high-stakes negotiations! And it also seemed to apply with negotiations with myself, which I appreciated a lot. I’m going to re-read that one before the end of the year, I hope.

    I’m currently reading a paper-book in the evenings called Quiet (about introversion), and during the day, a book called Pre-Suasion, about how to set up your message so it succeeds. Both are very interesting, and a lot of intersections, surprisingly. Q is 2013, and P is 2016, so both are referencing the same kind of studies and resources, I think. Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow seems to be everywhere.

    • I’m better at buying nonfiction than I am at reading it (biographies excepted, I’m a sucker for those). Yours sound interesting!

      Years ago, when I worked on the business side of advertising, we had a negotiation skills training weekend. It was great fun and I still remember the lessons we learned. One of the recommended books back then was “Everything is Negotiable” by Gavin Kennedy. I thought it was really clear and well-written, though it’s been the best part of 20 years since I read it, so I have no idea whether it would stand the test of time.

  2. I’m reading A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev and enjoying it a lot. There’s a prologue that I think is unnecessary, and so it was a bumpy ride to chapter 1, but now that I’m into it I’m caught up in the story. The setting and world building are very interesting.

    I read a contest entry once that was similar to your experience. I think it was only five pages, the scene where the hero and heroine meet. I was thrilled at how good the pages were. I kept my eye out for the contest winners, but I never found them and I don’t know what happened to that book. I would’ve loved to have read it, because the only score I gave that wasn’t the highest mark was the mark for the hero, whom I felt was just a little too smug. But terrific pages nonetheless. I wish I could say that I gain as much as you do from pages that aren’t as polished, but I can’t say that I usually do. But when I judge, I do enjoy figuring out how the writer could make improvements and making those suggestions.

    • Ooh, Sonali Dev! I’ve been meaning to read that for ages. Might have to put it on my Christmas reading list (I’m planning to treat myself to a whole week of novels and jigsaws).

      Such a pity you never tracked down the terrific pages you judged. I have hopes for identifying the entry I read, because it was so polished and those manuscripts tend to do the contest rounds until the author finds an agent or goes indie (or gives up). I really want the author to get her skates on, because I want to read her, damnit!

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