Advice from the Judges of the North Street Book Prize
by Jendi Reiter and Ellen LaFleche
We started this contest for the same reason that you wrote your book: We love a good story. We believe that narrative writing, whether fiction or memoir, has a unique ability to awaken empathy and illuminate complex truths of human nature.
Rapid changes in technology and the book industry are blurring the lines between self-publishing, print-on-demand, and traditional publishing. More and more, experienced authors are choosing nontraditional routes to find readers. However, most prizes for published books still exclude the self-published, sticking them with an outdated stigma of amateurism. Through the North Street Book Prize, we hope to boost the visibility of excellent writers whose books simply didn't fit into the big conglomerates' marketing plans.
We're holding your books to the same standard as the best titles from conventional publishers: polished writing, believability, dramatic tension, a story structure that foregrounds the major plot elements, and characters worth following. "Originality" is, shall we say, not such an original thing to ask for. In any case, like happiness, it's not something you can aim at directly. That freshness we seek in a story is better described as urgency: a book that convinces us that it had to be written.
We're committed to running the most transparent and ethical contest possible. Some services marketed to self-published authors are overpriced and make inflated claims. We've carefully vetted our business partners to offer our winners a high-quality marketing support package, in addition to our sizeable cash prizes. All entrants receive a free ebook download from book publicity expert Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Unlike some contests that use anonymous "judging panels", the Winning Writers judges' names and credentials are up-front so you can make an informed decision about submitting your work.
Some notes on genre and the judges' tastes
We decided to judge "commercial" and "literary" fiction separately because, by and large, these categories assign different weight to artistic considerations versus entertainment, and are working within different traditions. What is innovative in a romance novel, for instance, is measured by reference to other romances, not Finnegan's Wake.
However, we feel that the standard list of genres considered "commercial" (mystery, horror, science fiction, romance, Western) unfairly privileges the bourgeois realist novel. Is Lonesome Dove not literature because it's about cowboys? Is Romeo and Juliet just a YA teen romance? No subject matter is inherently more literary than another.
In our view, commercial fiction is characterized by an emphasis on plot and action, a greater reliance on stock characters and clearly delineated heroes/villains, an intention to follow familiar conventions (e.g. a mystery novel ends with solving the crime), and a workmanlike writing style that prioritizes accessibility over lyricism. Young Adult books may be entered in either category. Depending on the mix of entries received, the judges reserve the right to re-categorize books that seem to straddle the commercial-literary divide.
For all kinds of fiction, our judges appreciate storytelling that shows critical awareness of our current cultural prejudices. The characters may have as many flaws and blind spots as you like, but the author should demonstrate a broader understanding. For example, the 1960s businessmen in the popular TV series "Mad Men" are gleefully, obliviously sexist, but the scriptwriters expect their contemporary audience to be shocked by the difference in pre-feminist corporate culture. The male characters objectify women, but the writers re-center the female characters as subjects deserving empathy and dignity.
We would rather not read lengthy graphic descriptions of violence. (Even in the horror genre, remember Stephen King's dictum that terror-inducing writing is a higher art form than "going for the gross-out".) While we do appreciate good writing about sexuality, please remember that sexual scenes or musings—like all other scenes and musings—should enhance and be integral to the narrative. If your book includes sexual violence or nonconsensual sex, please be aware that we strongly disfavor victim-blaming and "rape culture" myths. A good list of the latter can be found at the feminist blog Shakesville.
In creative nonfiction, we seek true-life writing with a personal angle—a memoir or a collection of personal essays. We prefer nonfiction that connects the individual's story to an issue of wider cultural relevance, or gives us an inside look at an interesting subculture or historical moment. That said, remember that the heart of your narrative is the people, not the data.
See the judges' list of favorite books in your genre for examples. We look forward to discovering our next favorite—yours!
Book Recommendations By Genre
Martha Beck, Leaving the Saints
[A good example of the memoir that's also about a wider issue, in this case the troubled history of the Mormon Church and how some aspects of its culture contribute to child abuse.]
Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory
[Mexican-American public intellectual tells his personal story about the tradeoffs of education, assimilation, and alienation from his Spanish-speaking family.]
Jennifer Rosner, If a Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard
[Lovely "braided" memoir structure juxtaposes the author's experience raising deaf children, her quest to uncover family medical history, and her fictionalized reconstruction of the lives of her Jewish immigrant ancestors.]
Dan Savage, The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant
[One of the first gay adoption memoirs depicts the funny and scary aspects of new parenthood in terms everyone can relate to, while also illuminating social changes in the definition of family.]
Jeannette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
[Razor-sharp writing combines fantasy sequences and realistic satire in this lesbian coming-of-age story.]
Diana Holdsworth, Gold in the Stone
[Virile Israeli general and feisty American archaeologist find not only love but a historical discovery that could bring about interfaith reconciliation.]
William J. Mann, Where the Boys Are
[A group of gay friends try to balance true love and sexual freedom, while haunted by memories of friends lost to AIDS.]
William Masswa, Toughskins
[Romance between two young wrestlers explores issues of masculinity, healing from abuse, and the ethics of professional sports.]
Ann Victoria Roberts, Louisa Elliott and Morning's Gate
[Two-part historical romance with a paranormal twist, bringing together the stories of star-crossed lovers in Victorian England and their modern-day descendants.]
Peter O'Donnell, Modesty Blaise
[Witty 1960s British spy series is refreshingly free of the sexism and gratuitous violence that often plague this genre.]
James Lee Burke, Dave Robicheaux series
[Robicheaux, an aging policeman from New Iberia, Louisiana, is a Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who narrates the stories. The descriptions of the Louisiana landscaping are lyrical and memorable. While there is a certain amount of violence in the series, Robicheaux always places it in context, reflecting on it and making connections with crime and social issues.]
Thomas Cook, Red Leaves and Instruments of Night
[In Cook's lushly written, brooding novels, ordinary people face unthinkable choices that expose the good or evil in their hearts.]
Patricia Cornwell, Kay Scarpetta series
[Dr. Scarpetta is one of the most intelligent female characters in crime writing today. She is a lawyer as well as a skilled forensic pathologist. Cornwell not only deftly handles the complex science of forensic medicine, she provides Scarpetta's character with emotional and psychological dimensions that deepen as the series continues.]
Elizabeth Daly, Somewhere in the House and others in series
[These mysteries set in late-1940s New York have a quiet elegance and a likeable sleuth, the rare-book expert and amateur detective Henry Gamadge.]
Ruth Rendell, The Bridesmaid and Make Death Love Me
[Rendell's prolific output reached its peak in quality in the 1980s, exemplified by these suspenseful, tragic novels about love and madness.]
Minette Walters, The Shape of Snakes and others
[Gritty psychological British procedurals intersperse the narrative with "official" reports and source documents, making readers feel they are solving the crime in real time with the detectives.]
Fantasy & Sci-Fi
Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain trilogy
[Genetic engineering and unlimited renewable energy erase some social inequalities and create new ones. A compelling thought experiment in political philosophy, with characters you care about.]
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow and Children of God
[Members of a Jesuit-led expedition to another planet face the ultimate test of their faith when they encounter two intelligent alien species, one of which uses the other as both servants and prey.]
Poppy Z. Brite, Drawing Blood
[Part psychological horror, part gay romance. Sole survivor of a family massacre falls in love with computer hacker on the run from the FBI.]
Douglas Clegg, The Hour Before Dark
[When their father is murdered, three siblings return to their family home and uncover a terrible repressed memory.]
Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories
[Dark, erotic, and satirical modern myth-making that rages against the senseless sufferings of humanity.]
Sally Bellerose, The Girls’ Club
[Set in Western Massachusetts, this book tackles the themes of illness, poverty, and growing up lesbian in a small working-class town. Cora Rose is witty and observant, taking us through a series of first-person coming of age adventures. Rich and revealing dialogue capture time and place to perfection.]
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
[The golden age of superhero comics gives Chabon's characters a vehicle to process the trauma of the Holocaust and repressive postwar social mores.]
Louise Erdrich, Tracks
[The protagonist in this lyrical novel about the genocide of Native Americans is Fleur Pillager, one of the most enduring female characters of our time. The book opens with a harrowing winter scene that centers on a smallpox epidemic. The language in this novel is lush and lyrical, providing an ironic contrast to the theme of genocide and survival.]
Kathie Giorgio, The Home for Wayward Clocks
[In this lyrical, innovatively structured novel, an abused boy becomes a reclusive clock-collector whose healing journey is interwoven with short stories about the clocks' owners.]
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
[A dangerously naive American missionary family is swept up into the turmoil of the Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960. Each of the multiple narrators speaks with a poetry all her own, and voices a different way to make sense of this clash of cultures.]
Wally Lamb, I Know This Much is True
[Dominick Birdsey is the twin brother of a schizophrenic. At once funny and sad, this epic novel explores the complex layers of family life. Set in a small town in eastern Connecticut, this novel entertains while educating readers about mental illness. The scenes between Dominick and his therapist provide well-written dialogue, emotional depth, and a back story that helps him to come to terms with his schizophrenic twin and abusive stepfather.]
Toni Morrison, Beloved
[This is Ellen's favorite novel of all time. Morrison's novel about slavery through the mythical character of Beloved is rich in symbolism and history, and it's a haunting exploration of the mother-daughter relationship.]
Wesley Stace, by George
[A shy boy delves into the secrets of his family of vaudeville performers when he finds a ventriloquist's dummy belonging to his late grandfather.]
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
[A perfect example of a genre-defying novel, this epic tale borrows plot elements from commercial fiction (art theft, a terrorist bombing, organized crime) and is also a beautifully written meditation on the search for meaning in the face of death.]
Categories: Advice for Writers