The 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.