4 Writing Lessons from a Novel Contest Judge

Diane Callahan
8 min readSep 24, 2021

Writing contests are a lot like dating: you have to put yourself out there and brave rejection, but in the end, the most important thing is that you love who you are. To cultivate that sense of writerly self-confidence, here are four writing lessons I learned as a judge for the Page Turner Awards.

Specifically, I judged the Young Writer Award for aspiring authors between the ages of 18 and 25. I read the first ten pages of novels across all genres — from fantasy and horror to literary and young adult fiction. I felt like the main character of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, doomed to read only the beginnings of novels.

These tips apply to any type of fiction writing, no matter your age or experience level. As a developmental editor and fiction writer myself, I’ve come across these problems in clients’ manuscripts and my own writing as well.

1. The most difficult writing problem to fix is narrative flow.

I define “flow” as the story’s emotional pacing, where the reader feels pulled in by the narrative voice and conflict between characters. There should be a subtle feeling of suspense on a paragraph-to-paragraph level that makes the reader curious to read onward and see what happens next (sometimes called “microtension”).

So how does a writer achieve narrative flow? The author must provide the reader the information they need to care about the story without giving them too much. Moreover, that information needs to be presented in an engaging way; the typical “show, don’t tell” mantra applies here. Engagement is about creating that liminal zone between reader comfort and uncertainty. There’s a fine line between intrigue and confusion.

A lack of narrative flow is a hard problem to combat because it’s not localized — it’s a global issue that spans the entirety of the work. Adding a paragraph here or cutting a sentence there usually won’t solve the problem. Rather, the whole manuscript doesn’t work because it’s missing that je ne sais quoi that makes a story immersive and impossible to put down. Many…

Diane Callahan

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com