What can I say, tonight, that would be of most use to you?

The thing about writing a blog is that you feel like you have to hold up your end of the bargain. The pact is clear: you follow me, I say something at least half-way useful, at least half the time.

Well, lucky for me — and hopefully for you — some of my work this week has been judging a fiction competition. What better way to share how to please editors (which I claimed in my last blog to at least try to do) than to share an actual rubric that judges are using to evaluate your work.

1. Are you opening with a compelling hook that makes the reader/judge want to continue reading?
This is often interpreted to mean are you opening with a conflict, a crisis, a challenge: high drama? But for me, intrigue can be equally compelling: an authentic voice that makes the protagonist too interesting to walk away from; an atmosphere or setting that I want to dwell in; most effectively, something fresh or unique that signals that what I’m about to get from reading on, I will not get anywhere else.

2. Are the first ten pages an effective introduction?
In other words, is the promise that you’re making to your reader — the carrot that you’re dangling — well established by the time you get to page ten? You’d be surprised how many times that answer is no. In Dostoyevsky’s day, not a problem (although you could argue that his carrot is the beauty of his prose: you want more, you gotta read on). In our age, however, coyness is sadly a no-no. We’re busy. Your readers/judges might not need the plot, but we usually want the premise in the first ten pages.

3. Is the voice distinct and engaging?
I’ll put it this way. If you’re writing a romance, your heroine should not sound like a romantic heroine. Your heroine should sound like an alive, three-dimensional, interesting woman whom I’ll only meet in your pages. If I want to spend time with her, the only option I have is to keep reading. If I want to spend time with a romantic heroine, I can open many other books.

4. Is your manuscript appropriate for its designated category? 
A quick aside to many of my students: MG and YA are considered genre fiction, subject to forms and rules. Know your genre. MG, especially, is a citadel guarded by fierce librarians and protective mothers.

5. Does the conflict arise from the character’s motivations and goals?
Notice the focus is on the conflict arising from within the character and not out of external circumstances. Watch this one! That nuance is easy to miss.

6. When you lump that internal conflict with any external conflict, is there enough to sustain interest?
If in doubt, make it even tougher for your protagonist. Struggle keeps us interested. We prefer five-set to two-set tennis matches.

7. Does each character exhibit a unique voice, and is that voice consistent and appropriate?
This, I think, is often the hardest skill to teach. Some writers are just naturals at this. Others are always in the author’s voice — you’re aware that the character is the author’s puppet, and it’s the author who is speaking.

8. Does the story move forward?
It doesn’t have to progress at a gallop at all times, but it does have to always be taking us somewhere.

9. And the big kahuna: If this landed on my desk, wedged into a pile of manuscripts the sight of which, despite a life-long love for reading, evokes less pleasure than pain; if I don’t know you and feel no kindness towards you; if my eyes are tired; if my main need is to reduce this pile before it has the chance to grow again…would you give me an experience in two pages that would make me want to read more?
Because you can.
Completely unknown and unpublished writers have.

Go ahead and ignore my editorializing (ha ha, love it), but make this an exercise: hold up your writing to these measures. When you judge to a rubric, you see things that your more sentimental self might have missed.

Hope this helps. Happy writing!

Shirin