I'm judging a couple of writing contests: one for unpublished writers, another for published. I don't claim to be a writing expert, but I am a reader who knows a good story.
I read an average of two to three books a week. Most of them are romance, but I do like to throw in the occasional mystery, suspense, sci fi, depending on my mood. I used to make a point of reading a whole book even if I didn't like it. Now if I'm not into the story by page fifty, the book gets donated or returned to the library.
I share all this to say that there are certain universal elements that make a great story. Characters I care about. A setting that I would want to visit (or depending on the story, avoid). A conflict that might be something I've seen before, but brings something new. A writer's voice that grabs me through their use of language and imagery.
As I judge the unpublished entries, I look for those things. Sometimes, I see the potential of a great storyteller in those few pages, so I try to encourage that spark into a flame. I hope that they will take the criticism I offer to make them a better writer.
So as you read the next book, what do you look for? What is it about a book that makes the story stick with you long after you've closed the cover? What do you love about your favorite book?
PS - One of my favorite books is "Gone with the Wind" because I loved the spunky Scarlett and wanted her to find true love someday.