Eureka! I mentioned yesterday that I'm judging the initial round of a contest, and I'd read a couple of good samples and a couple of bad ones. Well, the last one I read was a winner, and if I were an agent, this person would get a contract ASAP.

What is it that set it apart from the others? There's the rub: I can't really say. There are books that hook me as a reader from page one, and this is one of them. The character is unique, the plot pulled me in, the writing style is neither awkward nor self-consciously literary. It's just good reading.

I'm not sure what contests do for an author. We read that winners don't really benefit from the experience, that their books don't sell any better than others'. I've even read that, especially for children's books, winning an award can be a turn-off, possibly because readers think of them as "high falutin'" when they just want a good story.

On the other hand, attention can't be bad in this day of too many books and too few readers. Winning a contest, finding an agent, and securing a publisher are all things that say someone other than the author and the author's mother believes a book worthy of notice. Self-publishing just doesn't carry the same weight. I know there are good self-pubbed books, and I also know that the vast majority of people don't even know the difference between self and traditional publishing. But entering a contest, querying agents, and applying to publishers is a great way to determine if what you write cuts it in the world of authordom.

So I'm glad the author to whom I've given my highest score entered this contest. I hope she gets some feedback that lets her know how much I liked her work, even if she doesn't win first prize. It's the sort of thing that might keep a writer going, knowing that this reader, though not an agent, would publish her book if it were in my power.

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Comment by P.J. on January 10, 2009 at 11:55am
That's the hard part for me, as well. Sometimes the difference between the winning book and the also-rans is absolutely nothing I can put a finger on, nothing I can cite to the author. Frustrating for me as a judge, and I'm pretty sure frustrating for the author who can't get a handle on what to fix.

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