Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Things I Learned As A 2015 Aurealis Judge

I was a judge for the 2015 Aurealis Awards and it was a fantastic experience.  Assuming there are no conflicts, I will be putting up my hand to be a judge again this year. I really enjoyed judging the horror category and would be happy to judge it again, however I’d also really love to try a different category as well. Fantasy novels, for example.

I learned A LOT as a judge. I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about a career in publishing, in any capacity. Unfortunately I think most of these lessons are best learned by actually being a judge and will be hard for me to pass on to you through a blog post. However I am going to do my very best.

I’ll start with the smaller things and work my way up to the bigger, more complicated lessons.

Firstly, if you are publishing an anthology, having a table of contents at the start is VITAL. It is almost-but-not-quite as vital in a novel. Trying to skip through anthologies to find specific stories without a working index actually made me a cry a few times. Having a judge in tears before they even start reading your story because the e-book hasn’t been formatted properly is not a good start. If I didn’t have to read those stories (EG: if I was reading for pleasure) I wouldn’t have read them at all.

Secondly, when reading a novel or story, emotional connection is the biggest thing you're looking for. You want to feel. Something, anything. Ideally I want to connect with the characters, but just being surprised or pleased or uneasy... anything at all, as long as you are generating some kind of intended emotion in me. Please note I said ‘intended’. A few authors got very low scores because I was disgusted by misogynistic portrayals of women, indelicate, unsympathetic portrayals of incest and bestiality, or just general bigotry. Don’t be that writer.

(And don’t come bitching to me that I scored stories low just because of bestiality, etc. Some of the incest and bestiality stories got high scores, because they were well written and sympathetic. Also, that’s one of those sentences I never planned to write, but here we are.)

Thirdly, novels and shorts are judged on really different criteria. If a story is under 2k, I'm looking at ideas, but the moment it gets longer than that, I am really looking to connect with the characters.

And style is more important than both of those things.

A writer's priority over 2k should be:
1. Style
2. Character
3. Ideas

And under 2k:
1. Style
2. Ideas
3. Character

Some people write amazing short stories and SHIT novels for this reason. And visa versa.

Fourthly, you learn a lot more from reading shit writing than you do from reading the 5 start books. One of my friends was bemoaning his lack of short-listing this year and I suggested he sign up to judge this year. He said he ‘learned by reading the winners’ and I wanted to shake him a little bit (okay, a lot). You learn by reading the losers.

I read 115 short stories, 33 novellas and 13 novels and ranked all of them between 1 and 5 stars. Being able to articulate what made something a 1, 2 or 3 start story was much, much more valuable than being able to say what I loved about the 5 star books. And the difference between the 4 and 5 star books was so important too. Seeing what pushed a story from ‘good’ to ‘amazing’ was the kind of knowledge I should have had to pay for.

Also, I could also accurately judge a stories rating within the first page. Sometimes the score dropped, if it had a weak ending, but if a story started weakly, it never salvaged itself. I said this to an editor who has been in the business for years, and she said she can tell within a paragraph if a novel will be any good, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

Maybe you are screaming that is unfair right now, but I’m telling you it isn’t. 161 stories and not a single one with a crappy opening page managed to change my mind. NOT A SINGLE ONE. So when I say ‘style’ should be your priority, I really mean it. You want to be easy to read, evocative and have a skilled use of language.

Fourthly, there is a lot more competition in the Australian market than I realised. I only rated five stories five stars, but there were a hell of a lot of four star stories. There are plenty of brilliant writers in Australia, producing breathtaking stories. I was continually wowed. Thankfully people read a lot faster than they write, so there’s plenty of pie for everyone. However you should be reading contemporary works and you should be reading widely, if you want to stay on top of the market.

If you read the hammy best seller (*coughfiftyshadesofgreycough*) and think ‘I can do better than that’, you’re in for a rude shock. Being an Aurealis Judge made me realise just how much I have to step up my game if I want to play with the boy boys (and girls). I have to stop wallowing around in my giant ego and keep improving my craft.

Lastly, don’t go to lunch with an agent the same week as the finalist are announced if two of her clients were in the novel category and there was no shortlist announced. People are going to be butthurt where books are concerned. Writing is personal, for agents, editors AND authors.

I caught a hell of a lot of (good natured) shit about the lack of shortlist in the horror novel category. I still think it was the right call, however in saying that, I am saying the other novels in the horror category this year were not up to standard to be shortlisted. Australia is a small writing community and that means there are 12 authors out there who are not my biggest fans right now. (Actually Trent cast shade on the lack of short list in his acceptance speech, so it might still be 13.)

Tread carefully on other people’s egos. Saying no sucks sometimes. But saying no is another one of those lessons you have to learn.

I may be ambitious and try and write a post on writing style next week. Or I may go back to my Characters series. Both are on the table. Remember to comment here or email me if you have something in particular you would like me to do a blog series on.


  1. It's a pretty big divide between critics and readers who do it for fun. Like, a critic's JOB is to point out what's wrong about something (though they should always try to say what *does* work, if anything, I imagine). Readers aren't generally being paid to pick something apart, on the other hand, and aren't held to the same rules that competition judges are. Judges do have to wade through a slush pile, mind you... so I'm not totally unsympathetic to the poor judge/critic/reviewer. That said, writers would do well to tidy up their MS. It's just professionalism. Many jump the gun, of course.

    1. Readers are a whole other ballgame.

      However I highly recommend judging to people who want to be professional writers. Since it gives you such a fantastic perspective on what it is like to be an acquisitions editor.