Every year I’m involved with judging at least a couple of different writing contests. It’s often time consuming but I always find the effort well spent because I’m reminded there are endless possibilities of stories and storytellers. It’s hard to believe there are so many writers and ideas out there!
Submissions come in from all ends of the talent spectrum, but I’m happy to report there is a deep and vast pool of wonderful writers ready to provide readers with an array of styles and expertise. The competition is fierce, but that just makes the winners better. And that should make readers happy!
So how do I judge a story? What do I look for? My title may be judge, but my role is reader.
I start with high expectations for each submission, eager to read something I haven’t seen before. First I look for clarity in the writing just as I would in any published book. Am I asking the right questions along the way? I can ask: oh, I wonder what’s going to happen next? But I shouldn’t be asking: Huh? What did he mean when he said that? What did that character just do? Why would a character do such a thing?
I don’t mind if a story takes a little while to get started, but I expect to be engaged from the get-go. The characters must intrigue or appeal to me, the setting should add texture and deepen the characters as they interact within their storyworld. I want to feel like I’m right there with them, inside their head, seeing what they see, feel what they feel. (This is, by the way, why I avoid horror stories!)
If I had to list some of the qualities I consider, it would look something like this:
- Fresh, unique story? (There can be fresh takes on tried-and-true themes, but there must be some kind of new angle.)
- Clarity/writing that doesn’t get in the way of the story
- Interesting setting
- Characters with proper motivation toward compelling goals, with plausible conflict keeping them from fulfilling their goals too easily
- Emotional pay off – bring me in and touch me emotionally
- A satisfying if not happy ending
Judges are nothing more than experienced readers—well, with an opinion and a vote, of course, but only because we’re involved in the business and have developed a sense to see what works and what doesn’t.
So with the next book you read, how would you judge it? What are some of the qualities you look for when reviewing a book?