All of the finalists are original, with highly distinctive voices and one or two are downright daring in how they've pushed the boundaries. You could equally say that the editors have been daring with one or two selections and I'm sure they'll be interested to hear what we the readers are going to say about it!
What the finalists do share with all the M&B writers who have gone before them, is that they write fluently, and show all the qualities of cracking good storytellers. Congratulations to everyone who's gone through!
Here's a quick look from me at the ten finalists:
Blood Roses - Lindsay Pryor (paranormal).
Leila, a powerful witch known as a serryn, arrives on the edge of Blackthorn, the city's darker side. She is escorted into its depths to deliver The Purification Book and to save a dying vampire, in return for her sister's life, or so she thinks. There she meets Caleb, a vampire as dangerous as he is hypnotically attractive, and who suspects Leila is more than an ordinary witch.
Lindsay beautifully evokes scene and character with just a few chosen words to add colour, detail and atmosphere. The fictional world is vividly drawn, with a definite Gotham City feel. The chapter is a massive 9500 words long, but Lindsay uses them all to showcase what she can do. The first part has some intense emotion, and from around half way, we are also left in no doubt as to her talent with pacey dialogue too. There are also some brilliantly executed twists and turns in the plot.
The Boss's Naughty Assistant - Cady Phelan (contemporary)
Sarah finds an online paparazzi pic of new boss Grant Whatley, British playboy billionaire. She sends it with a saucy message to her work mates - only it doesn't go to them, it goes to him by mistake!
Talk about introducing conflict and tension right at the beginning - we're right in it with this one. You really want to know what happens next, but Cady keeps the pace of the story just right, as well as keeping us (and Sarah!) guessing about what Grant's reaction is going to be. Tight writing style, and characters you can empathise with.
Help Wanted: Apply for Love - Carrie Spencer (contemporary)
Gabby wants to be close to Finn McGregor, CEO of McGregor Publishing, for a reason. Finn just wants a competent EA who can help him realise his ambitious business goals. When Gabby, working in HR of the company, takes down his outrageous spec for a new EA, she hits on the idea of applying for the job herself - maybe then she will be able to approach him with her mother's book manuscript for publication.
Gabby stands out as a determined but down to earth heroine, and is no sterotype beauty: "Two-toned spiky hair that seemed to have a life of its own, like a black and white sea anemone in rough surf. Wide gray eyes that stared at him unblinkingly from a pool of black eyeliner. She looked more like a pixie or a sprite than a competent EA." Carrie has a distinctive voice which pushes the boundaries (she even describes the colour of a wall as "baby-poo green") and there is a real life quality to her prose, which complements the emotional depth of her heroine.
The Royal Marriage Rescue - Kara Jacobe (contemporary)
Amid a media frenzy, Joselyn comes out of a medical complex and is driven away, putting on a brave face as she has to go back home and face her husband. She has received some bad news, and feels she is disappointing her husband. The chapter follows their emotions, which they are unable to communicate to one another.Although this entry starts amid a burst of action, the physical action is short lived. From thereafter, we are in the minds instead of both hero and heroine, contemplating their current emotional crisis. A deeply emotional piece, where the conflict comes from what the characters are feeling. At times this reads more like a literary piece than a category romance - quite unlike any M&B entry this reader has come across before!
A Russian Affair - Lucy Snowe (contemporary)
Russian oligarch Alexei Ranaevsky is contemplating the death of the close friend he thought of as a brother, and his friend's wife. Their son Kostya has been left an orphan. Alexei's lack of sentimentality towards women is demonstrated as we see him deal with current girlfriend Tara, of whom he has very obviously tired. Over to the little boy Kostya's house, iwhere it's just him and his nanny Maisie now. Maisie is contmeplating how best she can look after Kostya in the circumstances, when suddenly men in suits, some of them armed, storm into the house …
Lucy is a natural at showing not telling, and shows us the hero through his actions and behaviour towards Tara at the beginning of the chapter. Tara is also well characterised, with a few choice words of description, fitting dialogue and behaviour towards the hero that we don't really like – so we are on Alexei's side from the outset, despite his cold behaviour. Although Alexei is drawn as cold and numb of feelings in this opening, his warmth of emotion towards the orphaned Kostaya contrasts with this and keeps us rooting for him. Some fantastic characterisation, in a well paced chapter, which leaves us wanting to see some of Alexei's cold exterior melted down.
The Secret Duchess - Sharon Siddoway (historical)
Reuben Rakesworth, Earl of Rochester, has suddenly come out of a mysterious seclusion in his ancestral home, Grove House, and journeys to London on treacherous muddy roads. Apollonie Ames is already at the party with mother Harriet, discussing a plot to get hold of some documents left by Apollonie's late father, even if Apollonie might need to get engaged to help them to do so. When Rakesworth arrives at the party, however, it seems Apollonie has been hiding a big secret ...
The characterisation in this chapter is a real strong point, both hero and heroine built up in turn, leaving the reader wanting to know what their connection will be and how they will interact. One thing we know they have in common, which Sharon brings out beautifully, is a disdain for the "polite society" of the period. Here is some of Reuben's POV before entering the party: "He was covered in filth. Mud splattered from his cloak down to his boots, he couldn’t remember ever having been so dirty. But the muck strewn clothing did not bother him; in fact, he thought it was an entirely appropriate way of marking his return into high society." Well written and clever, with a well executed complex plot.
Secrets and Speed Dating - Leah Ashton (contemporary)
A girl walks into a bar ... where there's a speed dating evening going on. Sophie Morgan is very up front with her 5-min dates about her inability to conceive a child. At the end of the night, when everyone else has gone, Sophie's left sipping her cocktail and mulling over her "mess" of a life. Barman Dan Halliday is rather taken with the girl left in his bar, although his warning lights are all flashing. He ends up offering her a drink and asking her to stay and talk ...
A simpler plot than some of the other entries, but deep insight is given into the thoughts of the characters, especially Sophie. Leah presents Sophie's dilemma clearly and in a way which makes us want to know how she'll resolve it - and how her man, when she finds him, will react to her not being able to have children. A wider question is raised here too - whether having children really does always have to be part and parcel of a perfect romance.
The Surgeon and The Cowgirl - Heidi Hormel (contemporary)
Jessie Leigh, a one-time rodeo trick rider, now runs a riding therapy programme for sick children. The chapter opens as she tries to rescue Alex, a little boy who is one of the patients, as he has just wandered into the corral where the horses are agitated. They are both rescued from a potentially dangerous situation by Jessie's ex-husband Payson, the surgeon who treats Alex. It is clear Jessie and Payson are still both very attracted to one another. Jessie needs to secure backing from the hospital where Payson works, to help her project succeed, but Payson has reservations about the project. This is another very original idea – a surgeon and a cowgirl don't often find their way onto romance pages together. A well-written chapter with winning ingredients – action, emotion and conflict. There are also some nice tender touches – especially Molly the pony who likes giving kisses.
Wildsong - Jill Lynn Anderson (romantic suspense)
Lexie Gray is having a make-over to change her appearance, as she enters the witness protection programme, and through a series of flash-backs, we learn how she witnessed the assasination of the Governor of New York, along with his young son, as well as all the others who were present. Lexie is the only survivor. Jill's style is precise, vivid, and almost journalistic – not at all typical of category romance. At times I thought Alice Sebold. The story is written in the first person. It begins with murder, and includes the shocking murder of a child. There is as yet no sign of romance. This entry breaks the mould perhaps more than any of the others.
Thigh Noon - Kat Cantrell (contemporary)
Alexia barges into the office of her ex-husband Jesse Hennessey, CEO of , demanding back the patent papers for the Thigh Thing, a product she designed. Jesse however is more interested in Alexia than the Thigh Thing, and is determined to hang on to the patent to get to her. Despite Alexia's own fierce determination, Jesse is always just one step ahead, and makes her an offer she is forced to accept – to give their relationship another try, in return for the patent. A fast paced and compelling opening chapter, with conflict and romantic tension between the hero and heroine from the outset, as well as a strong reciprocal physical attraction – the very stuff M&Bs are made of! The heroine is a fiery one, but the hero is more than alpha enough to take her on. A touch of humour and an original plot involving the “Thigh Thing” are the icing on the cake.
So for what they're worth, those are my thoughts on the finalists. You may notice certain words come up quite a lot, as things these entrants did well - character, emotion, conflict, pace, dialogue. No surprises there then, and another quite obvious clue as to why the finalists went though!
For the rest of us - back to the drawing board. Although having said that, with so many great first chapters in the competition, I'm sure there'll be success stories in the weeks to come from many who didn't make the competition finals. I'm looking forward to those - and am still rooting for a few personal favourites who I'd have loved to see in the top ten.
So what did you think of the entries? Any favourites?