Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge

The book covers for the 2015 finalists in the historical fiction category of the Whitney AwardsThe finalists for the 2015 Whitney Awards were announced on Monday. I had a particular interest in the announcement this year because I was a finalists judge. My last participation with the Whitney Awards was back in 2009 when I was a member of the voting academy. For that, you try and read the finalists for each category and you can vote for each category that you complete (there were a lot less categories back then). Being a finalists judge is different. You read every book that was nominated (and remember that it only takes 5 nominations to be part of the nomination pool). It was an interesting process. I’m not sure that I want to repeat it. Then again, I’m not sure if I’ll be asked back. And then again, a few days ago, I would have said never again, and I’ve already warmed back up to “not sure”.

I was asked to be a judge in the historical fiction category. The organizers ask what categories you’d be willing to judge. I told them any of them (yes, even romance). And I meant it. I’m fairly widely read in all of the genres, especially a lot of the foundational texts of the various genre categories. Because I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again, and because even if I do, there’s no telling what category I might get (and because I’m not going to spill all the beans), I feel comfortable sharing a few things about the process.

On the Historical Fiction Finalists

I read every page of all of the nominees, finished the final title 48 (or so) hours before the deadline to submit the ballot and completed my voting more than 24 hours before deadline. Of the five finalists, three overlap with my top five. I’d say that’s pretty good. After the winners are announced, I will post my top 5 and which one I’d pick as the winner.

On receiving publisher/self-publisher copies

All of the books except for one came in electronic form. This was great. I have an eink Kindle and a smartphone with the Kindle app and could switch seamlessly between the two. What wasn’t so great? When publishers provided PDF copies instead of .mobi/.epub files. PDFs may be great on an iPad. They aren’t great on anything else. I highly recommend that publishers supply ebook files. Not because it’ll make the judges look at your titles more fondly (I’m pretty sure that judges take the process very seriously), but because judging finalists is a long, thankless task and anything you can do to make things easier for the judges helps keep them from being burned out by the process.

On self-published titles

I can’t speak for other judges (I don’t even know who they are), but for me it made no difference whether a book was self-published or not. In fact, most of the time I had no idea who the publisher was because the ebook opened up to the first page of the text. The only thing I noticed is when a book was poorly written, poorly edited and/or poorly formatted, and none of those necessarily correlated with if a book was author-published, small press published or medium press published (I don’t see Covenant and Cedar Fort as big presses even if they are big in the Mormon market).

On the judging process

Whitney Awards organizers ask judges to read the nominated books and rank them from most deserving of an award to least. That’s all we turn in. We don’t (indeed can’t) provide comments on the titles. Just the ranked list. At first I thought this was going to be difficult. It turned out that the books sorted themselves quite easily. This was surprising to me. And looking back at my list, I don’t have any second thoughts. Which means, I think it’s a good system. I have no idea what the organizers do with the list in terms how they tabulate the category judges’ lists. And I like it that way. I provide my list and then the finalists get pulled from it based on my ranking in relation to the ranking of the other judges.

On my judging rubric

Whitney Awards organizers encourage judges to take notes on the books they read so that they have something to refer to when they cast their ballot. They also suggest using some sort of rubric, although they don’t suggest how we go about that. That suggestion came in after I had already read the first two titles, and I almost ignored it. I figured I’d just keep a running ranked list with notes, but then I decided to try a scoring rubric.

For my rubric, I scored each title on a scale of 0-5 for plot, characterization and prose. As I judged for each category, I also took into account the historical elements in relation to that category. I bumped some scores up or down based on how well the author did in using things like setting, research, historical details, language, etc. to construct plot, characterization or prose — that’s how I worked in my scoring of the work as historical fiction. And because historical fiction is a setting-based genre, I also scored each element in relation to the actual narrative structure — mystery, romance, adventure, family saga, etc. — of each title. This worked very well and meant that I could balance each of the three elements in relation to what the book was rather than against each other (although that also comes into play a bit). In this way, for example, prose wasn’t “does it read like a finally crafted New Yorker short story?” but rather “does it read like the best titles within the category that it’s part of?” Characterization wasn’t “does this rise to the level of Henry James?” but rather “is the characterization good for the type of narrative structure the book is attempting?” I felt this was the most fair way to do it, and it’s why having the rubric helped. I’ll use it (or a form of it) in the future should I be asked to judge again.

On the field of nominees

I will have some general things to say about historical fiction, and especially LDS historical fiction, later, but for now here’s a general take: there were some titles I quite liked. There were others I didn’t. I’d say that the best of this year’s crop (my top eight or so) holds up fairly well against the top five from 2009 (my only other comparison point). But none of the 2014 titles are as good as 2009 finalist and best novel winner In the Company of Angels by David Farland.

12 thoughts on “Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge”

  1. .

    I totally agree about the pdf issue. I’ve been amazed about how difficult it is to wrangle them out of PR people. And since I won’t read pdfs, it means they either don’t get my attention or have to pay to mail me a hardcopy. Silly publishers.

    Do you happen to know if the number of nominees was consistent over the categories?

  2. William and Theric, there is a way to get .pdfs to read in a non-annoying way on the Kindle! My smart husband found it on the internet. You have to email it to an address that converts it. I did a bunch of reading of .pdfs that way and while there were some formatting issues, it was far less annoying than trying to read a .pdf on a Kindle straight.

    Thanks for for the insight, William!

  3. Th. — I have no idea, but I doubt it. Any book that garners five nominations is part of the pool so it depends on the number of books published in the category that year and whether they got nominated or not. I would suspect, for example, that the YA categories were larger than historical or general fiction. In fact, that might be why they split YA into general and speculative.

    Emily — good to know. That’s more work that has to happen on the part of the judges, but if there’s no other option…

  4. I have to confess that I cringe at the mere thought of publicly admitting which category I judged, or even going so far as to reveal my personal rubric (which was quite similar to yours). I admire your bravery in doing so, and applaud how you approached the process. I think it’s good for readers and authors alike to see how we strive to select the most exemplary titles from the pool of nominees.

  5. Thanks, Kimberly. I don’t know that it’s so much brave as inevitable. This is what I do in the field of Mormon literature. 🙂

    I admire your stamina in being a judge. Not that it’s always an onerous chore (although there were some titles that I wouldn’t have finished if I hadn’t been reading them as a judge — no, I’m not going to reveal which ones) — it’s more that it’s a lot to read in a short amount of time. And even though I ended up with a category that has a lot of variation in narrative structure, the hardest thing for me was reading so many books in the same genre in such a compressed period of time (although thankfully books did come in early so I didn’t have to read all of them in the last two months before the deadline). Maybe I’d feel differently if I judged a different category, but I don’t think so.

  6. I’m much happier as a quiet, behind the scenes sort of person. But I see the value in providing insight into the judging process. 🙂

    Thankfully, I had the advantage of being “fresh to the field” this year. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the processes involved and how (and why) things are done how they are. I already had a great deal of respect for the program, but it’s developed into full blown awe and admiration. The level of passion and commitment on the part of those involved is both staggering and humbling.

  7. Thanks for this rundown, William. And thanks for all of those who put in the time to read these books, and the time to administer the awards. It’s a highly valuable service that all of you perform.

    I also think (as someone who has not been on one of the Whitney finalist committees) that you were very appropriate in the kind of detail you shared and chose not to share, and what you’ve said about what you’re planning to share later. For what it’s worth.

  8. I love reading behind the scenes posts. I was a judge last year (we had 40+ titles for YA speculative) and it was fun to have that inside look at the system.

    1. Wow. I did not have to read 40+ titles. That’s insane. Although page count is important too. YA novels tend to be short (although especially in speculative word counts seem to be creeping up).

  9. Thanks for sharing this look behind the scenes, Wm. I’ve thought about volunteering to be a finalists judge in the past, but unfortunately the judging period coincides with the busiest time of the year for me, professionally. Maybe I’ll volunteer to be a member of the voting academy some time.

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