Or what I learned during the 2nd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge.
**Warning: Extended Food Metaphor Up Ahead Due to Repeated Viewings of "Top Chef"**
Somewhere around entry #600, I realized that there was sometimes a difference between entries that I liked and entries that were well-written. Entries that fell into genres I enjoyed reading (YA, Fantasy), entries that were amusing, or touched upon a subject that I was personally interested in, were winding up in my finalists pile that probably didn't belong there. At the same time, I was overlooking some good writing because of my biases.
I think that's what the difference is between reading for enjoyment and reading like a literary agent. The literary agent approaches writing like a food critic would approach food.
Take Ho-Hos for example. They're god awful, and yet, I like to eat them. Bland chocolate cake and overly sweet cream filling contained in a cheap chocolate product shell. Yum! Then there's ceviche. I despise ceviche, but I know a good one when I taste it and can appreciate the quality ingredients and craftsmanship that's gone into making it.
As I winnowed down the finalists, I started searching for that ceviche, trying to really examine the quality of the writing. In other words, I was trying to refine my literary palate, something a good agent already has developed.
If I had been an agent and not trying to judge a writing contest, I'd be looking for that wonderful combination of craftsmanship, quality, and enjoyment. Or to keep the food metaphor going a little longer, I'd be looking for a really well-made Kona crusted steak. Because as much as I love the occasional Ho-Ho, they're not very satisfying and no matter how much I might like the genre, plot, or clever joke in a first paragraph, if that first paragraph isn't written well, the rest of the book probably isn't going to hold up.
One final food-related observation, I know I overlooked some of Nathan's finalists because at first I was going for likeability versus craftsmanship. That said, a couple of the finalists just didn't work for me, because just as people, even people who are star chefs, have different palates, people have different tastes in writing. Agenting is subjective, who knew?
To sum up: I feel as if I now have a much better understanding of how literary agents approach their job. I've also succeeded in making myself very very hungry, so I'm off, but will post the list of Honorable Mentions tomorrow. Until then, take care!