North Street Book Prize 2015
Honoring the best self-published books in literary fiction, genre fiction, and creative nonfiction
First Prize $1,500 Genre Fiction
Jenna Leigh Evans, Prosperity
First Prize $1,500 Creative Nonfiction
Elizabeth Kirschner, Waking the Bones
First Prize $1,500 Literary Fiction
Gloria Taylor Weinberg, A Homicide in Hooker’s Point
Honorable Mention $250
- Tricia Cerrone, Glimmer, Genre Fiction
- Nat Goodale, Vacationland, Literary Fiction
- Delaney Green, Jem, A Girl of London, Genre Fiction
- Alec Hastings, Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers, Literary Fiction
- Russel Lazega, Managing Bubbie, Creative Nonfiction
- Deborah McCarroll, The Long Hot Walk, Creative Nonfiction
Thanks to our entrants in the inaugural North Street Book Prize for self-published novels, memoirs, and short story and essay collections. We received 400 entries. Assistant Judge Ellen LaFleche and Final Judge Jendi Reiter were impressed with the amount of talent that is flourishing outside the mainstream publishing industry. Each book is a testament to the author's perseverance and faith in the story they have to tell. Everyone who entered should be proud of that.
Ellen screened the entries as they arrived, reading excerpts from each book to judge its style and storytelling ability. She came up with a shortlist of about 60 books for Jendi to evaluate. Jendi read about 25 books all the way through, and significant excerpts of the others. Then the top 16 finalists went back to Ellen for a closer reading. We asked ourselves two questions as we read: (1) Was this book good enough to be published by a traditional press? (2) If we were reading this book for pleasure, rather than for the contest, would we continue reading?
Our top fiction entries blurred the boundaries between our Genre and Mainstream/Literary categories. They combined the high-stakes action of commercial fiction with the psychological depth, lyricism, and social significance of literature.
Jenna Leigh Evans took first prize in the Genre division for Prosperity, a dystopian vision of contemporary Americans herded into a corporate-run debtors' prison. Prosperity occupies the same literary territory as the surreal short stories of George Saunders, where banality shades into horror, yet small acts of human connection create moments of grace inside a soulless bureaucracy. Honorable Mentions went to Glimmer by Tricia Cerrone, a military thriller about genetically enhanced teenagers, reminiscent of Robert Ludlum's spy classic The Bourne Identity; and Jem, A Girl of London by Delaney Green, a vivid and well-researched paranormal historical about an orphaned girl in 18th-century London who cross-dresses in order to practice medicine.
In the Mainstream/Literary division, first prize went to Gloria Taylor Weinberg for her gritty historical novel A Homicide in Hooker's Point, about the aftermath of domestic violence in a 1950s Florida sugar mill town. Through the eyes of Vicki, a sensitive, precocious child, we see youthful idealism struggle to comprehend the gulf between law and justice. Honorable Mentions were awarded to Vacationland by Nat Goodale, a bittersweet story of a Maine lobsterman fighting gentrification, and Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers by Alec Hastings, a rollicking adventure about a French-Canadian youth and his colorful family in the 1920s.
Elizabeth Kirschner's Waking the Bones was the clear standout in our Nonfiction division. Already an award-winning poet, she took first prize with her gorgeous, searing memoir of recovery from child abuse. Her innovative style, cross-cutting between the past and the present, the literal and the mystical, captures the experience of a fractured mind reconstituting itself as a beautiful mosaic. Honorable Mentions went to Managing Bubbie by Russel Lazega, a gripping re-creation of his grandmother's escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, leavened with humorous present-day anecdotes of her life in America; and Deb McCarroll's The Long Hot Walk, a thoughtful account of her itinerant childhood in New Mexico with a schizophrenic mother.
In the later stages of judging, structural weaknesses—pacing, plausibility, or point of view—were most often what kept a book from advancing to the next level, even though we might have liked the voice or the premise. Here are some lessons from our experience:
A book doesn't have to start with an explosion to grab our attention. We're willing to take a leisurely walk with a character who can immerse us in a new world. However, the story's main agenda should be clear early on. Scriptwriter Bill Johnson's manual A Story Is a Promise advises that a compelling narrative will quickly establish a high-stakes problem for the main characters to resolve by the book's end. The events that follow should move them closer to that goal, alternating with enough setbacks to maintain dramatic tension. The protagonists may not get what they want, but the book must deliver on the "promise" of resolution, one way or another.
As judges, we lost interest in books where, 50-100 pages in, there was still no pivotal event or agenda around which to organize the narrative. Vivid reminiscences, philosophical musings, and character sketches can only take you so far.
Some books in the Genre Fiction category ended on a cliffhanger because the author wanted to create demand for the sequel. This sometimes left us unsatisfied. Don't let marketing gimmicks warp the structure of your story. Whether it's a stand-alone or part of a series, your main narrative arc needs closure, or your readers will feel cheated of their emotional investment in the characters. This is not to say that every plot thread should be neatly tied off, because life is not that simple. The story's end should be a natural resting place between the resolution of one major episode in your characters' lives and the start of their unknown future.
We received a fair number of family sagas that spanned several decades and generations. Such a long journey needs more signposts than most of these authors provided. Preface your book with a diagram of the family tree. In chapter or section headings, indicate the year and geographic location of the events that come next. Focus on a couple of main characters in each generation, and try to choose them based on a theme that their lives have in common.
Sexual relationships that cross professional boundaries are a staple of prime-time soap operas about doctors, lawyers, and politicians. As judges, we find them less believable in novels, perhaps because the written genre goes deeper into characters' inner life and motivations. If you're writing about a cop who flirts with a suspect, or a lawyer who used to date his client, you have to show that he recognizes the conflict of interest and is worried about it. Or, the character's lack of concern for professional ethics should fit into your larger picture of him as a villain or maverick anti-hero.
Teen girls with paranormal powers were a trend in this year's entries. They read minds, talked to animals, fought off kung-fu masters and zombies, cured diseases, and learned skills faster than a super-computer. Though such exaggerations are the norm in genre fiction, remember that less is more. When you load too many unrelated talents onto your protagonist, there's not room in the storyline to make use of all of them.
Most importantly, technological fantasy is no excuse to skimp on psychological realism. She might be able to walk through walls, but to be a relatable character, she should still have a teenager's immaturity, impulsiveness, hopes and fears. Puberty and sexual attention are disorienting enough for normal youth; if paranormal changes in her body don't freak her out, she's not reacting in a believable way.
Dialogue and social mores can establish your setting in historical fiction—or break the illusion. Once again we'll note the importance of specifying your story's time and place. We read several books set in Southern small towns reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird or Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, only to be thrown off by pop-culture references that put us closer to the 1980s than the 1930s. Were these details an error, or was the writer just assuming that rural America hadn't changed since the Scopes Monkey Trial?
Watch out for characters whose mode of expression is too sophisticated for their age and education level. On the flip side, we were ambivalent about books where characters spoke in ethnic dialect, because white authors have historically used dialect to stereotype people of color. We were more comfortable with dialect when the book had multiple African-American characters whose different speech patterns served the storyline of their differences in background and degree of assimilation into other communities.
While we're on the subject of stereotypes, don't use body type or gender performance as a proxy for virtue and vice. You can always tell the villain in a Disney movie because he or she is fat, disfigured, swarthy, and (if male) has overly refined, effeminate mannerisms. Too many of our entries relied on such lazy and prejudicial descriptions to designate unsympathetic characters. Not only does this stigmatize people based on appearance, it misleads us about the nature of evil. In real life, the most successful perpetrators get away with it for so long because they appear to be normal, wholesome, high-achieving and attractive by conventional standards.
Gratuitous sexual scenes represented a missed opportunity to connect the characters' physical desires to their personality and place in the world. We're not talking about explicitness so much as relevance. Like anything else your characters do, their sexual pursuits should add depth to the story. The same goes for scenes of violence. Ellen often cites James Lee Burke's "Dave Robicheaux" mystery series as a model in this regard. The violent episodes always reveal something about the detective's emotions, Vietnam War memories, or ethical dilemmas. They're not just there for shock value.
Out of the entries that reached Jendi's desk, a book without a rape or child abuse backstory seemed like the exception to the rule. It's good that these subjects are no longer taboo, but an irresponsible treatment of them is worse than none at all. Please, please, research PTSD and give your character realistic triggers and a long enough recovery time. Remember that the police and the court system are not always a safe and effective solution for victims, especially ones who are not white and middle-class. Also, don't use rape to "humanize" previously invincible female action heroes.
Point of View
In the Memoir category, one common structural weakness was the choice of protagonist. These authors were part of an interesting milieu but not personally central to the events that made it worth writing about. Their memoirs didn't have a strong enough narrative arc because they essentially had the wrong main character. In such cases, the author would have been better off writing a historical novel based on their research.
We read several memoirs where the narrator's childhood reminiscences were emotionally and physically vivid, but the adult years became vague and abstract, jumping over large stretches of time or holding the reader at arms' length from the personal feelings involved. We can only speculate about reasons for this pattern. Did the author lose her nerve? Was she concerned about exposing people in her present-day life? Was she just more connected to her inner world when she was younger? In any case, we felt that these authors were holding out on us, and were disappointed that the books' strong start fizzled out.
Our Wishlist for Next Year
Diverse literature matters to us. We were gratified to receive many books centered on women and girls, African-American families, and working-class communities. However, we found that books about Black people and racism were mostly set in the Jim Crow South of yesteryear. We'd like to see a literary response to current racial inequalities such as mass incarceration and police violence, or any contemporary issues, really. There were surprisingly few books with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender characters. We would greatly welcome more queer writers and stories next year. We'd also like to hear about the experience of other people of color—Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and so forth. Winning Writers is working on outreach to a broader range of writers. Please help spread the word!
We would like to recognize and encourage these finalists:
- Max Gordon, Live Free or Die
- Cheryl Sawyer, Murder at Cirey
- G.G. Silverman, Vegan Teenage Zombie Huntress
- Beth Lyon Barnett, Adam's Needle
- Eugene McCreary, Gift of the Tiger
- Rose Mary Stiffin, Walk in Bethel
- Monica Vickers, My Extraordinary Life
Jendi Reiter is vice president of Winning Writers, editor of The Best Free Literary Contests, and oversees the Winning Writers literary contests. She is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), the poetry collections Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) and A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), and the award-winning poetry chapbooks Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). In 2010 she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant for Poetry. Awards include the 2016 New Letters Prize for Fiction, the 2016 Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction, the 2015 Wag's Revue Poetry Prize, the 2013 Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry from Descant magazine, the 2011 James Knudsen Editor's Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, and second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, Mudfish, Passages North, Cutthroat, Best American Poetry 1990, and many other publications.
Ellen LaFleche is a judge of our North Street Book Prize. She has worked as a journalist and women's health educator in Western Massachusetts. Her manuscript, Workers' Rites, won the Philbrick Poetry Award from the Providence Athenaeum and was published as a chapbook in 2011. Another chapbook, Ovarian, was published in 2011 by the Dallas Poets Community Press, and a third chapbook, Beatrice, about a semi-cloistered nun, was published in 2012 by Tiger's Eye Press. Her poems have been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Hunger Mountain, New Millennium Writings, The Ledge, Alligator Juniper, Many Mountains Moving, Harpur Palate, Southeast Review, and Naugatuck River Review, among many others. Prose credits include her 2014 Daily Hampshire Gazette article "Taken too soon, at 65: My husband John Clobridge's final days with ALS" and the essay "Happily Ever After" about dealing with diabetes through fairy tale poetry, which appeared in Wordgathering, the online journal of disability poetics. She also reviews books for Wordgathering. She has won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the New Millennium Poetry Prize (shared with Jim Glenn Thatcher), the DASH Poetry Journal Prize, the Poets on Parnassus Prize for poetry about the medical experience, second prize in The Ledge Poetry Awards, and the Editor's Choice Award for Poetry from Writecorner Press.