Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Mad Max & Canadian Crime Book Awards

Remember the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (Mel Gibson before he completely weirded out), with the spectators chanting in the arena: “Two men enter; one man leaves”? Canadian literary awards aren’t quite that cutthroat (although one might wonder sometimes), so let’s modify the chant to “Many authors enter; one author leaves.” (Or for the shortlist, “Many authors enter; five authors leave,” which, quite frankly, doesn’t sound nearly as good. But I digress...)

We are now less than six months away from Bloody Words and the big Canadian crime book awards events: the new Bloody Words Light Mystery Award (aka the Bony Blithe), presented at the Bloody Words banquet on June 2; the Arthur Ellis Awards, presented on May 31, the night before BW starts; and the Hammett Award (which I consider a quasi-Canadian award because it’s for Canadian and American authors and is presented at the Bloody Words banquet).

The shortlist announcements are even sooner: around mid-February for the Hammett, March 28 for the Bony Blithe, and April 19 for the AEs.

Why do some authors win awards while others don’t? Legitimate question, that. What’s not so legit are complaints from authors, such as the following (yes, these are for real): The judges hated my writing style. The judges didn’t understand/appreciate what my book was all about. The judges hate cosies, noir, humorous mysteries, historicals, romantic suspense (go ahead – fill in the blank with your subgenre), and the flip side: The judges only like police procedurals (I’ve heard this one a lot for the AEs).

Granted, there may be some truth to these points (judges are only human), but the reality of why A wins while B to Z don’t is much simpler and less of a conspiracy.

Even before we get to what judges are looking for in an award-winning book, there’s something very important to consider: Is your book eligible for the award in the first place? The Bony Blithe is for light mysteries, or as stated in the rules, “books that make us smile.” Your angst-ridden noir novel with a tortured-body count in the dozens may be absolutely brilliant, but it doesn’t stand a chance of winning. The Hammett is for “literary excellence in the field of crime writing,” so I think we can assume that cozies are less than likely to win. The Arthur Ellis is the most open, albeit only apparently; the best novel award leans towards more serious books, although almost anything goes with first novel.

Assuming your novel fits the competition criteria, there are two ways judges look at the submissions to determine the winner (and the shortlist, too): absolute quality and relative quality.

Absolute quality is relatively easy to judge: All the elements of the book – plot, structure, characters, setting, dialogue, point of view, believability, writing technique, etc. – have to come together into a unified whole. Then the book has to have that magical spark – that ephemeral je ne sais quoi that makes it stand out from all the other entries.

Relative quality is much trickier and refers to how your book compares with all the other entries in the category. Judging relative quality has caused many a judge to become follicly challenged because there will almost always be more than five books that pass the absolute quality test. This makes for hours of backing-and-forthing among the judges, to say nothing of a certain amount of horse-trading. And then, of those five submissions that make it to the shortlist, there has to be one that stands high above all the rest. It’s not unknown for no one’s first choice to win.

Judges (being only human) have their likes and dislikes in literature. But all awards try to find judges who represent a wide spectrum of the reading public. Even more important, contests look for judges who understand that they are not looking for a book that they “like,” so much as they’re looking for the book that epitomizes the best of crime-writing in its field.

In the end, literary competitions can be a real crap-shoot. You can have a book or story that is a critical and/or commercial success – a piece of work that you’re proud of. But you may be up against other authors with equally stellar books. If your book had been published in another year, you might have been up against fewer books or books of lesser quality. And one year’s judges will almost certainly have a different view than another year’s judges of what makes for a stellar book.

So don’t go into paroxysms of angst about being a lousy writer if you don’t win or aren’t even shortlisted this year. The fact that you’re published probably indicates that you’re a good writer. The stars – or at least, publishers’ publishing schedules – were against you. Have a stiff drink or a big old chocolate bar...and get back to writing.

Cheryl Freedman was Mothership (secretary-treasurer, then executive director) of Crime Writers of Canada for 10 years; she resigned in 2009 but still keeps her hand in. A permanent director of Bloody Words, she’s been on the Bloody Gang since 1999 and is the chair for this year’s BW XII, June 1 – 3, 2012 in Toronto. In “real” life, Cheryl is a freelance editor and desktop publisher.

1 comment:

  1. Great points, Cheryl! Sometimes I think I torture myself entering awards or contests, simply because I like having an excuse to open that bottle of wine or chocolate bar. But it's true that we have to be careful to submit our work to the competitions that fit our novels best. In other words, read the criteria carefully. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.