Mark Terry

Friday, January 02, 2009

What I Learned As A Thriller Judge

January 2, 2009
I volunteered to be a judge for the International Thriller Writers, Inc., Thriller Award last year. I'm just about finished. And although there is a confidentiality agreement in place, so I can't talk about specific titles or judging, I thought I would talk about some--not all--of the things I learned from doing this. I ended up reading 33 books, some by people I'd never heard of, some by people I have read occasionally, some were books I had already read because I'm a fan and some of them were books by people I had heard of, always meant to read, and never got around to reading.

1. There are a lot of good books out there, but great is a lot harder to come by. Because the particular category I'm involved with is Best Thriller, I keep looking to be blown away. To not be able to put the book down. To have it linger in memory. To set it down and say, "Wow!" It never really happened. Think about that. 33 books and you never say, "Wow!" Yet some of these books are bestsellers. Sure, I'm probably jaded. On the other hand, none of the books were bad. Many were not "my cup of tea," but they were fine. Some I liked a lot but didn't, you know, say, "OOooooohhhhh, aaaaawwwwww, wow!"

2. If you win one of these awards, congratulations. Don't let it go to your head. There's a lot of dumb luck involved in these things. I didn't think this before. My last 2 novels were submitted for this award and I confess to feeling mildly stung (particularly in the case of The Serpent's Kiss) that my books didn't even make it into the semi-finals (ie., top 5). Now, having judged these things myself, I've decided that winning the award is an even bigger crapshoot than getting published is. I don't know who will win, and because of how ITW is judging, it's possible I won't have even read the book that will eventually win. I know in past years I've found some of the winners almost unreadable, although last year's winner for Best First Novel (Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill) was quite deserving, in my opinion, despite some sour grapes that, after all, the guy is Stephen King's son! It just feels like the deck is stacked, you know? Still, that's a great novel, first time or not.

3. The corollary to #2 is, of course, if you don't win, don't take it personally. Out of the hundreds of books, yours needs to rise somehow to the top and appeal to people who largely judge the books subjectively. I have moments when I think we could kill all the judging entirely, glue all the books up on a wall and throw 5 darts blindfolded to see which ones win. There's no predicting.

4. Oh yes, subjectivity. For this judging I have a partner who reads the same books. We haven't really discussed the books, but we did discuss how we went about judging them. And I can tell you this, we judge them differently. She's very systematic, creates a point system for different things like character and pace and plot. I, on the other hand, am a "winger" who took the first book I read, gave it a score and every other book was compared to that score. How our two approaches will be handled--probably averaging our top books, or something like that, before it gets handed off to another panel of judges--is a little vague to me. (I don't know and I don't want to know. I just want my involvement in this to be over).

5. Does "politics" count? I don't know. I don't know any of these writers of the 33 books personally. I've interviewed one or two of them over the years and I met one of them a few years back at a writing conference. Otherwise, I don't know them. I don't know if that's the case with all the judges. If you attend a lot of cons (I don't) and you hang out in the bar with these writers, if you call them friend, would it bias you? Possibly. I know a writer friend of mine does have a book up for this award and I'm glad I didn't have to read it for the award. (It's on my shelf, waiting to be read, Joe M). Would I have pushed him to the top? Dunno. Probably not. I would have tried to be as honest as possible. But, well, he might have gotten some extra bonus points for being a good guy, consciously or unconsciously. So you never know.

6. Different strokes for different folks. Some of these books were heavily plot-driven. Some were character-driven. Some of them were both or in between. Some were historicals. Some took place in the present. Some were vaguely SF-ish with heavy fantasy elements. There's so much variety you wonder how they can even be compared. How exactly does a military thriller taking place in modern day Beirut compare to a futuristic fantasy thriller taking place in New York City compare to a novel taking place in the 1300s compare to a forensic thriller taking place on the east coast compare to an espionage novel that bounces all over the globe that seems "ripped from the headlines?" Dunno.

I will say that I read a military thriller with a great pace, interesting backstory and paper-thin characters that was still a very compelling novel. Go figure.

7. I will try not to volunteer for this sort of thing ever again.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I jusged a YA contest out on Chicago . . . and my opinion of judging is exactly the same. Exactly. Not one book wowed me. I followed their score sheet, assigning points for each thing they asked me to judge (voice, opening paragraph, etc.). The book I liked "eh" actually "won" on pure scoring because the parts each scored higher as I went through it. But the SUM TOTAL of the parts left me utterly lukewarm, and I would have preferred to give it to the book with the great voice. But I was using THEIR score sheet and trying to be really honest and fair.

AND . . . none of my choices won when grouped with all the other judges' scores so what the hell do I know. :-)

5:37 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

A friend of mine is judging the Edgar Award and has commented to me after slogging through about 100 novels, "I hate writers."

It's been an interesting experience, I'll say that.

7:56 PM  
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