Fiction Judge


Linda Merlino, Contributing Writer

Sometimes a good book lands unexpectedly next to my bed on the pile of must reads. Maybe its arrival was a holiday gift, an impulse buy, a borrow from a friend, a library lend or one of ten I agreed to judge for a state contest. My cup runneth over with debut novels.

There are two contestants remaining as I write this piece. All fiction, mostly adult, and a few middle-grade. The genres are all over the place. One does not get to choose as a judge. As such we are instructed to remain anonymous, to be open minded, objective, receptive, and not feel there must be a first place, a second or a third. Only once have I been in that position.

Most years there has been a winner. In 2022 the last judged book I read, out of ten novels, was considered Steampunk genre. A subgenre of science fiction with a subculture that invites a collision of the future with the past. Who knew? The judge (me) was hooked on the first sentence. The gifted author went on to garner a national win.

February’s a dreary month. Perfect for hunkering down with a book, and a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Most of the novels submitted are self-published. The authors are varied. A few have been publishing for a while and the others have just entered the debut world. Every one of them should receive an Honorable Mention for perseverance, bravery, and guts without glory. I am humbled by the opportunity to read these submissions. There is talent out there which will never see a best seller list, and never sell enough to buy groceries or a car. No matter. These are writers who deserve to be read and the best I can give them is my time.  Submissions range from romance (the spine of the industry) to mystery thrillers, historical fiction, narrative fiction, dark fantasy, and dystopian.

If I pick up a book and put it down without thinking about the protagonist or where the storyline is taking me, I know in real time it will gather dust. Judging has softened my hard and fast edges, forcing me to follow through and observe simple guidelines. Number one: Read the entire book. Number two: Note the arc of the story. First impression. Originality. Pace. Use of language. Voice. Message. Relevance. Flow. Do I care about the protagonist? Once I close the book am I still in conversation with the characters. Do they stay with me? Do I miss them? If I can taste, smell, hear, see, and feel the story, my senses ignite, and I am a goner.  Sounds crazy but reading should find openings into the heart and cracks of the soul.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash