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.