Judging for the Whitney Awards—part 1


For the third year in a row I have the privilege of being a judge for the Whitney Awards. In 2008 I judged the romance category; last year I read for both the mystery and general categories (INSANE!), and this year I am happily back in familiar territory reading romance once again.

It is a privilege to be a judge for these awards. For me, being asked to judge means that someone, somewhere must think I know something about writing. I hope, that after over a decade at it, I do. To be certain, I’m still learning and growing as a writer myself, and during the years I’ve judged I have come across more than a book or two that was way out of my league (like last year’s general fiction winner, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet).

Unfortunately, I’ve also come across books that have disappointed me—especially in the romance category. Romance has and probably always will get the bad rap as a genre of fluff and bodice ripping. This bothers me—a lot. I enjoy romance novels. I’m not embarassed to say I write them. After all, what could be better than writing about love, the greatest of human emotions? Writing those emotions, showing characters discovering love for the first time, working to keep that love, and overcoming obstacles to make it happen, is a wonderful thing. It’s also not an easy thing to do and do well.

In a suspense or mystery novel, if the bad guy isn’t all that bad (ie. truly, believably evil) and the plot is not mysterious enough to keep the reader guessing and turning pages, then things really don’t work well. And most stories in this genre that don’t work well, don’t make it to press. The same principles apply to romance. If the characters are not loveable (to the reader and each other), and the relationship isn’t shown growing (but the characters are suddenly thrown into a passionate embrace), then the story fails to be believable. And for the reader eagerly anticipating being swept away into an uplifting, romantic story, it is horribly disappointing. Unlike suspense, however, it seems there is more publisher leniency in the romance genre, and so we end up with fluff and bodice rippers. Both of which make me crazy :)

To that end, I’ve decided to do a couple of posts about what I personally look for in a book when judging for the Whitney Awards.

First, let me say that Whitney judges are not given a specific set of criteria to look for in a book. There are times I wish this were different, as I have judged contests with specific elements and point systems, and in many ways this makes the job of judging much easier. But because of the volume (entire books, and many of them!) that Whitney judges read and the limited time which they have to read them, the current system works best. It is not perfect—we’re dealing with humans here—and it is very subjective. But I do believe those in the position of judges take their jobs seriously and work hard to treat all entries equally and fairly.

Second, I’ve been on the other side of contests enough—with both the Whitneys and local and national writing organizations—to know how it feels to have a beloved manuscript (or in the case of the Whitneys, a beloved book) in the hands of others to be judged. Quite honestly, it can be a terrifying, frustrating, heartbreaking experience. With all that in mind, I tread with care, hoping to shed positive light on the Whitney experience for all involved.

Here, in a nutshell, are the top five things I look for when judging the romance category. In a forthcoming post I’ll talk more specifically about each of these.

1. A story that grabs my attention and pulls me in.
2. Characters I care about.
3. A believable plot.
4. A love story that builds in a natural, realistic way (see #3).
5. Good writing—believable dialogue, avoidance of head hopping/POV changes, a plot that moves forward, not back (as in continuous flashbacks), and an overall package that suspends disbelief and evokes emotion (laughter or sadness—love them both).

While reading Whitney nominees this year, I’ve come across books that failed at many of these. Happily, I have also read others that hit every one right on. To those writers, I say a heartfelt thank you for making my job so enjoyable. It is my hope that as the Whitney Awards continue to grow, being a judge becomes more difficult, as more and more of the nominees will consistently meet the above criteria. The Whitneys are all about reaching for, achieving, and recognizing excellence. May all of us who write continue to strive for it.