I recently judged some contest entries. Obviously I’m not allowed to talk about them, but I don’t think it’s out of line to say that it was an interesting experience to make the leap to judging published entries after years of judging unpublished.
With unpublished entries, you’re often asked to provide feedback so you’re reading for potential as much as what’s actually on the page. You can say, “I’d like to know more about why he did this.” Reading a published story, you have to judge it at face value. What is here? Did it play well or not?
One of the huge stumbling blocks I had to overcome to earn my first publishing contract was learning to get words on the page with regards to character development and emotion and motive. I could pull out the revision letter that really drove it home for me. “Dani, it would be nice to see on the page that the hero feels badly about this…” That ‘on the page’ phrase must have been on the revision letter six times.
But I got it and this judging exercise demonstrated to me how it becomes the difference between a gripping love scene and the pizza guy showing up at the door prompting everyone to strip and go at it.
Which didn’t happen in any of the entries I was judging! That’s not what I’m implying, but there were definitely different depths of point of view and drawing of detail. Yes, you want to stimulate the reader’s imagination, giving them opportunities to connect some dots, but you also want to offer up those crisp snapshots of a room, or those hard nuggets of backstory. When it came down to weighing my response to a book, I saw how much the reader’s level of guidance affected my engagement with the characters and story.
Obviously market comes into play and reader expectation and every reader prefers a little more or less narrative. Bog a scene down with too much detail and your pacing dies. It’s a tough balance and a writer would be lucky to please most of the people most of the time.
Writing for a line like Harlequin Presents, I work extra hard at trying to achieve that balance because I’m asking for a pretty big suspension of disbelief when I invite a reader into the world of tycoons and secret babies. For instance, how can my hero, Paolo, outright reject the idea he could be the father of Lauren’s baby when they had a night of intimacy three months ago? I mean, does he not understand where babies come from? He’s Italian, for heaven’s sake!
I thought I’d post the excerpt and let you be the judge as to whether there’s enough on the page to understand his cynicism.
“How dare you call me a liar over something so important?” She made no move to exit the elevator.
He put out a hand to hold the doors, his scornful gaze flaying her into sandwich meat. “I’ve been down this road. How could you think I’d take your word for it?”
She didn’t know much about his marriage, only what Ryan had told her: that his ex-wife had plotted with her lover to con Paolo into child support payments. The plan had backfired when he had insisted on marriage. He had unraveled the subterfuge right before Lauren’s own wedding and the marks of being taken advantage of had been carved into his brutally handsome features while he stood next to Ryan at the altar. Ryan later admitted that just before the ceremony, Paolo had tried to talk Ryan out of marrying her.
Then, grim and cynical, Paolo had barely been civil at the wedding reception, leaving a strong impression he blamed Lauren for timing the event to happen as his own marriage dissolved.
She didn’t own a crystal ball. She couldn’t have known. She had felt awful and tried to apologize. Frozen in the elevator, she unwillingly relived how he’d told her to leave him alone and she hadn’t listened, reaching out instead to try to comfort him. He had brushed her off, started to turn away, then had spun back and pulled her into him like a lifeline.
He had opened her right up for the passionate kiss he’d drawn from her with seductive ease. She’d forgotten everything, most especially that she was newly married. Nothing had come back to her until Paolo had drawn back to murmur something against her lips and Ryan’s voice had interrupted at the same time. Then Paolo’s gaze had turned cold and vindictive. Women were fickle and treacherous and easy, he’d implied with a rake of his gaze down her wedding gown as she had moved to her husband’s side.
After behaving like that, she should have seen that he would lump her in with the woman who’d turned him into such a cynic about female honesty. Lauren put out a hand to steady herself against the cold mirror, biting back a protest that she was different. She had no way to prove it though. Not when she’d been the one to initiate the lovemaking in Charleston.
How obtuse was she that she hadn’t seen this coming? But she’d known she was above women who played foul so it had never occurred to her he’d accuse her of such a thing.
What’s your idea of the perfect balance? Have you read stories that felt underwritten? Did they engage you in spite of that or did you want a little more? If you’re a writer, do you ever struggle with how much is too much?
Dani Collins spent two decades submitting to every publisher with a transom while holding down a day job and raising a family with her high school sweet heart.
When The Call finally came, Dani ran with it, going to contract on eight books in that first year. Along with her Harlequin Mills & Boon titles, she has an epic fantasy romance, The Healer, with Champagne Books and an indie-published rom-com, Hustled To The Altar.
While her stories span very different genres, she always delivers alpha-male heroes squaring off with spirited heroines in a deeply emotional, unforgettable romance.
Dani would love to hear from you. Find her at: