What are the Whitney Judges Looking For?

After watching the somewhat heated debate on your post “Cliches and adverbs” I hoped you might be able to clear up another question. What exactly are the Whitney Award judges supposed to be looking for? Are the winners supposed to be the most compelling story in their category, or are the judges looking for the most literary work in each category?

It seems like my favorite authors are sometimes rated lower by the judges on sites like Goodreads than books that I found to be slow to develop and/or lacked the ability to keep me interested. (And no, my favorite authors don’t include any that are prone to overusing cliches and adverbs!)

Whitney judges (aka, the Whitney Academy) are not given instruction on what to look for. We get the list of finalists. We read them. We choose the ones we think are best according to our own definition of best. Since there are gobs and gobs of Whitney judges, including authors, publishers, bookstores and others, you’re going to have a wide variety of definitions of “best”. When it all shakes out, I think the winners tend to be a pretty good sampling of LDS fiction.

As a Whitney judge, I look for a well-written story first. I’ll accept some structural issues—typos, adverbs, cliches—but if there are too many, it loses points fast. If there are more than a few grammatical errors, it loses points regardless of how good the story is. If the story is hard to follow, changes POV incorrectly, or if I’m constantly being pulled out of the story due to other errors in writing, it loses points.

Second, I look at the story itself. Does it appeal to me? Does it touch me in some way? Does it capture my imagination? Do I laugh out loud (in appropriate places, of course)? Do my eyes tear up when they’re supposed to? Does the story make me think, change me in any way? Does it entertain me? Am I surprised or amused? Was I sad that the story ended? Do I want to read more? Do I want to read it again? Do I want my children and/or friends to read it?

I take the overall impression of the story itself, add in the structural issues, and then go with a gut reaction.

And let me tell you, with two more books left to read, this year some of the categories have been truly difficult to judge. For me, I really liked all of the Youth Fiction books. I’d be satisfied if any of the five won. So far, I’ve narrowed it down to three, but I’m having a hard time choosing. Same with Mystery/Suspense. It was pretty easy for me to narrow it to three, but now I’m stuck. Ugh. Best Novel—same thing. Narrowed it to three, but then do I choose the one I enjoyed most or the one I think was better written? Haven’t decided on that yet.

So. Other Whitney judges, feel free to jump in here and add your two cents worth if you like.

Author: LDS Publisher

I am an anonymous blogger who works in the LDS publishing industry. I blog about topics that help authors seeking publication and about published fiction by LDS authors.

29 thoughts on “What are the Whitney Judges Looking For?”

  1. My criteria for judging the Whitneys is similar to that spelled out by LDSP. I look first for a technically well written book. I can excuse an occasional typo or misused word, but if they’re jarring and interupt the story then I deduct points. (It’s interesting that some of the nationally published books are as bad or worse in this area than those put out by LDS publishers) I also look for doctrinal accuracy and values which includes a lot more than no explicit sex or swearing. Plot and characters receive equal weight. I can’t support a nominee that fails to provide well-developed, believable characters or one that lacks an interesting plot. I look for a strong beginning, a middle that develops the story, and a believable, strong ending in keeping with the story. Some categories are much harder to judge than others, but all have at least one nominee I can support and most have multiple nominees I would be happy to see win.

  2. Here is what I have been looking for, in no particular order:

    1-Good writing. I just can’t get through a book that I feel the need to take a red pen too (cliches, adverbs, cheese).

    2-Characters who change and grow. If the protagonist stays the same, solves the problem/gets the guy, but does not grow, I don’t like that as well as a character who experiences personal growth as the plot progresses.

    3-For books with LDS characters and themes, a treatment of them that I resonate with. Being LDS is much more than just keeping the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity. I like books that reflect the depth of our culture and doctrine, and that allow their characters to struggle, while still portraying the LDS faith in a positive light (“happy literary”).

    4-An engaging plot, one that surprises and delights and feels right. For romance novels, that zing! when the characters get together.

    I have really enjoyed reading the Whitney finalists thus far, and I’ve discovered some great books I would not have otherwise read. I agree that Youth Fiction is the strongest overall category.

  3. The youth category is so tough this year that I’ve actually enlisted my kids to read the finalists and put their two cents in. I figure I can look for the basics that LDSP, Jennie and Emily described, but the finalists are so good, I may need some extra opinions from the target audience. 🙂

  4. I like romance but I felt that one of the novels nominated for Best New Novel and Best Romance was one of the most charmless, boring romances I’d ever read. I finished it, but it was an effort to keep turning the pages.

    If that’s one of the best new novels, LDS fiction is in serious trouble. I don’t understand how the people involved with the Whitneys can expect readers to take the award seriously when clearly marginal books are up for “major” awards. Either you’re awarding true literary merit, or you’re not. If it’s that difficult to find five truly worthy books in each category, you should think about running the awards every other year. As it is, the awards are not credible.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not an author, just a reader of LDS fiction, so no sour grapes here.

  5. So, Anon, if one bad apple spoils the entire set of finalists, let me ask you this: have you agreed with every single one of the Oscars nominees every single year? Because, if not, by your logic the Oscars “are not credible”.

  6. ARgh–I just wrote the most poignant post every written in blogland–and encountered an error that erased the whole thing. So here’s the summation

    1–I liked the book anon hated

    2–I really don’t like YA fiction, it’s been the hardest category for me to judge–so isn’t it nice there are people that love it.

    3–The Whitney Awards really aren’t a conspiracy

    4–A good book is one that keeps me reading instead of doing dishes and laundry–that’s my basic measure. The more dishes and laundry piled up when I finish the book is a pretty good indicator of how good that book really was.

    5–The whole point of the Whitneys is to show the range of good fiction out there, and just cause I hate something doesn’t mean it sucks. Just cause I like something doesn’t mean I’m an idiot.

  7. Envelope please….

    You really should explain the difference between the Whitney Judges who particiapte in the popular final vote and the Whitney judges who select the five finalists in the semi final vote. The final vote looks more like a popular vote while the selection of finalists looks like a very small group of judges.

    LDSP, are you a judge in the popular vote or a judge in the semi final vote?

  8. I am one of the final/popular judges.

    However, I do contribute to the first round of voting in that I NOMINATE my favs.

  9. Josi- I really liked that book that the 1st anon hated too, but Holy Adverbs. I think that's one example of a great, fun, entertaining, original story, where the writing was very weak and that detracted from the my enjoyment in reading it. I counted 5+ adverbs in just the first 4 pages and tons of adverbs throughout the rest of it. That's just too much. That was only 1 example of weak writing in that book. There were other things in it that weakened it as well. Unfortunately, there was a good story with weak writing. Whitney Finalists need to have both good stories & strong writing. Just one of those is not enough.

  10. Traci, I thought about doing that, and I might have if my son were equally interested in all types of books, but my boy is not going to be too interested in _Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow_, whereas he has enjoyed the others (except Alcatraz, which is just above his reading level right now)… But I did ask him about his favorites, and he likes 13th Reality best. But I still think I need to go with _Sun and Moon_ I just loved that book. Such a delight on so many levels.

    Josi, I liked the book in question too, once I got into it. It was slow going at first for me, though. I really liked _Seeking Persephone_ better (are we allowed to mention names here?).

    I’m very curious about how the semifinalists were chosen. I have some specific questions, like why couldn’t _The Reckoning_ be listed as historical fiction? It takes place in a specific time in the past, even though it’s recent past. I really, really wish it were in that category. And how are the five finalists for Novel of the Year chosen? Is it one from several other categories? Is that why _Waiting for the Light to Change_ didn’t make it?

    I am so curious. And also grateful to the semifinal judges for all the reading they did to get the Whitneys to this point.

  11. Even the worst films at the Oscars meet certain basic standards. You might not like the story or the plot, but the mechanics are there.

    I didn’t particularly enjoy the book in question. It had its charms, but the romance was not believable. The last minute attempt at a romantic conflict was weak/forced and didn’t work.

    I don’t think that book is the worst offender among the nominees. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have someone read it as an example of LDS romantic fiction, because it is fairly typical. There are other nominated books with more obvious problems. I would hate to think someone would read one of those and think “that was award-winning LDS fiction? What must the rest of it be like?”

    You have to decide if you want the Whitneys to recognize excellence in LDS writing, or to award LDS fiction that is the lesser of all evils. I guess if a story that is “original” but “where the writing was very weak” is what you want held up as the best in its class writing, then what can I say. “Here’s an award! Congratulations, your writing… …isn’t that bad!” What an incredible honor.

    Maybe you need to have three very good books in each category, instead of three very good books and two average but not outstanding books.

  12. “A good book is one that keeps me reading instead of doing dishes and laundry–that’s my basic measure.”

    Oh my. That’s an extremely low bar for a literary award. You wonder why people don’t take the Whitney’s seriously? That’s exactly why.

    I wrote some pretty good fan fiction. I’m sure it would rate over laundry. Can I have a Whitney too?

  13. Still, Anon, you seem to keep ignoring all of the people who say they liked the book. I think for the awards to lack credibility there would have to be more widespread complaints than one anonymous commenter and his sock puppets.

    Speaking of which, you said: “You wonder why people don’t take the Whitney’s seriously? That’s exactly why.”

    Actually, no I don’t wonder that. I read a lot of blogs related to LDS fiction, a lot of LDS authors websites, etc, and no one besides you is complaining much about the Whitneys. Could you perhaps point me to some others?

  14. I counted five adverbs in the first three pages of Harry Potter. Dang. Jo Rowling must be a total HACK.

    Aubrey’s debut novel is charming, and so is Aubrey.

    Question: Are the Whitneys supposed to bring extra attention to certain books, or is it just an inner circle type thing – recognition amongst authors?

  15. I was also curious about how books are assigned to a particular category. I nominated both Freefall and Royal Target and was excited to see them make the list of finalists, but I didn’t expect them to be against each other. I really thought Royal Target was more romance than suspense.

    This situation brings us back to the question that started this discussion. If I was voting for my favorite, would I choose the one I think has better writing (Freefall) or the one I related to better and enjoyed more (Royal Target)? Choices like these make me glad I’m not a judge.

  16. I think some of you need to take a chill pill. The nature of awards is subjective. You can try to assign all sorts of mathmetaical equations to try to weight the judging “fairly” but in the end it comes down to what people enjoy reading. I know of books that some people hate and others love–who’s right? I’ve read nationally acclaimed, immensely popular books with adverbs, POV shifts, and rule breaking all over the place. I’ve also read Newbery Award books that I didn’t like in the least.

    The fact is you can only decide for yourself what is “good.” Everyone has different criteria. So what if Josi’s criteria is different than Jennie’s? Her criteria is just as valid. As is mine and LDSP’s and the bookstore owner who hates suspense but loves romance.

    Seems like some are being overly critical of the Whitneys, the judges, and the books. If you don’t like how it turned out, then NOMINATE your favorite books next year. If you really believe in a book, get your friends to nominate it as well.

    We should be supporting the Whitneys and those who’ve worked so hard to make them a reality.

    And, if you find a book you love, support it by buying it for your family and friends.

  17. LDS fiction is not in trouble – the books currently being published are of higher quality than ever before. If there’s concern over “If it’s that difficult to find five truly worthy books in each category, you should think about running the awards every other year. As it is, the awards are not credible,” please keep in mind that the market is still small. We aren’t publishing thousands of books a year, like on the national level – we’re seeing hundreds, not thousands, come down the LDS pipeline. Consequently, we are going to be dealing with smaller numbers. But I dislike the idea of painting the entire LDS market the same color because you disliked one book.

  18. Gordon my man. Do you really think an LDS author in this smaller than small market is going to plaster their opinions all over the internet and start a mountain meadows? Really? We all need at least one author friend who can keep us from throwing the computer at the wall and jumping off the new Deseret Book office building on south temple in front of Trax, screaming, “I can’t do this anymore! My writing sucks! I will never be published! Ever!” I mean, we don’t need another UTA mishap.

    You say something politically incorrect in this size of a market and you can kiss your reserved seat at the table goodbye. The Whitney Gala awards dinner would be very difficult to seat. There are only so many tables in the banquette hall.

    “Non smoking table for one, please.”

    What are you smokin’, man?

    And anon buddy right above me, if all the judges judging suspense prefer romance above the other genre picks, the books with a heck of a lot of romance have it in the bag. The ones that don’t focus so much on romance don’t have a prayer unless they’re amazing.

    Maybe a little formula for getting judges with some different tastes isn’t so dumb or complex after all. Sort of spreads the preference field around. And wouldn’t that force judges of different colors to have to ask deeper questions like, beyond the romance, or beyond the suspense, or beyond the youthful appeal, or beyond the cool fantasy worlds, which book really had some creative twists, or a moral undercurrent, or memorable writing, or cool characters that made me smile or laugh, ewwe or barf? Did any novel try something totally new in the technique category? Cutting edge that worked?

  19. Thanks to Sue and the others who had positive things to say about Spare Change– it really wasn’t much of a mystery which book earlier posters were referring to. And for the record, I am painfully aware that my book is not the strongest in either category it was nominated in. It has been fun for me to read books from other nominees, but the experience has been somewhat daunting as well; seeing how much I still have to learn.

    Being nominated for a Whitney was an honor that I never imagined. Perhaps my book was not well polished enough to be included in the finalists, but that doesn’t mean I am going to stop writing. Hopefully, every book that I write will be better written than the last. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

  20. Way to go Abrey. That’s some courage, as opposed to my anonymous post. I am such a foolish lurker.

    I like you and I haven’t even read your book or met you. One day I will shake your hand, look you in the eye and tell you I admire your courage and your spunk to keep at it. When that day comes, I hope you’ll remember this post and your courage.

  21. So, Anon (three above), if I can summarize your comments: no, you can’t point me to any other complaints about the Whitneys.

    That’s what I thought.

  22. If you want to find fault with the Whitneys, it’s not hard to do. Here are some of my complaints:
    1. There’s a disproportionate number of speculative novels, four categories.
    2. The romance category is represented by the weakest nominees. The best romances have been shifted to other categories.
    3. I don’t like one novel being listed in several categories.
    4. I don’t like the inclusion of novels that don’t adhere to Church standards such as those with excessive violence.
    5. A disproportionate number of nominees come from small press, non-LDS presses, or are self-published which is not indicative of the LDS market and have not been read by a large cross section of LDS readers.
    6. Sloppy copy editing doesn’t disqualify an entry. (I can live with adverbs, but advise for advice? Loose for lose? The omission of articles?)
    I could go on. It’s impossible to have completely fair judging when many of the judges are competitors ourselves, when people who have received numerous rejection letters from a particular publishing house or who have had conflicts with other writers or publishers are asked to judge, when there’s no “blind” judging format available, when no credit is given for success within the LDS market, when some judges are biased against particular genres, authors, or publishers (it’s a small market and we all know each other). BUT these awards are still worth while, the voting system is greatly improved over last year and overall the nominees are strong representatives of LDS fiction. I doubt anyone on the Whitney committee claims the system is perfect, but as Whitney recognition grows, as more people get involved, as the committee is able to separate itself from sponsorship, it will grow and become of greater significance. And anyway,who can honestly say that a book that absorbs a reader so much he or she stays up half the night to finish it or it competes favorably with doing the laundry isn’t as strong criteria for judging a book’s worth as any classroom rules?

  23. I’m surprised that Aubrey’s book is the one with all the broo-haha. I was assuming this whole time it was a finalist I hadn’t gotten my hands on yet.

    I’m a freakishly picky reader, and I really, really liked Spare Change.

    No, it’s not Steinbeck or Cather or Milton. But then, it’s not supposed to be, either. It’s supposed to be a romance, and it did its job. It was fresh, funny, and different. That’s why it’s a finalist, with or without adverbs.

    I love the comment about JK Rowling-the woman can’t have a speech tag without an adverb attached. But she’s a GREAT writer even with those pesky -ly words.

  24. I haven’t read the entire Romance category yet (and I have already confessed that I did enjoy Seeking Persephone more) but what I liked about _Spare Change_ was the secret admirer twist, which totally surprised and delighted me. She set it up well, and I was tickled. I am not easy to please when it comes to the romance genre; I have a low tolerance for cheese. But I enjoyed this one a lot.

  25. I happen to be a really picky reader, too, but Spare Change was one of the first books I picked up when I decided to start reading LDS fiction after a 15 year absence and I practically wept with joy that it was finally getting GOOD again. It was a fun story with heart, it made me laugh and smile, and I stayed dialed in the whole time. Yeah, there were a couple of little things that could have used a little tweaking but I think it shows incredible promise as a debut novel. It is exactly the kind of thing that this market needs in order to attract readers that have gone elsewhere in search of good storytelling that doesn’t beat them over the head with a moral.

    What I loved about Aubrey’s book is that her character is real and engaging and I found the technical problems negligible. They definitely didn’t pull me out of the story at all. She’s a really cool girl and her next two books are even better. I think we’d be LUCKY to get more fun stuff like hers.

  26. For those of you who have mentioned specific titles and what you liked about them, thanks for sharing. However, those comments would be more appreciated if you added them to the book post at the LDS Fiction site.

  27. One more comment … I find it interesting that so many persons on this thread are ready to say what they do and do not like about the Whitneys, and yet none of them had the insight or the vision to set up the awards themselves. I heartily take my hat off to the entire Whitney committee for the foresight and the dream they had to get this award off the ground. Of course it’s not 100% perfect (I challenge you to find an award that is) but the committee has done something I’ve seen no other award do – they took the suggestions from last year and applied them to this year. And they’ll probably continue to tweak. That takes integrity, to admit that things aren’t perfect and to continue to strive to try. But you have to admit, they got off to a really good start, a whole lot better than I think most other people would have done.

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