Of the more than 700 books from seven genres submitted for the 2017 BookLife prize, only 35 advanced to the semifinals. A panel of seven judges, who are all bestselling or award-winning authors, then selected seven titles to advance to the finals. The grand-prize winner will be announced on December 18. We caught up with the seven judges to talk about what they were looking for and the titles they picked for the finals.

Eleanor Brown

If You Want to Know About Stories, Study Movies

Writers who are just starting out tend to nurse the fantasy that if they could just land a big book deal or garner a massive audience, their creative problems would be forever solved. Bring this idea up to Eleanor Brown, our general fiction judge and the author of The Weird Sisters, a New York Times bestseller, and The Light of Paris, and she will assure you that it doesn’t work that way.

“You just get a new set of problems,” Brown says. “No one’s struggle is over. [The life coach] Martha Beck talks about the day she hit her goal weight and nothing changed; she still had to get up and eat right and exercise. For me, I have seen that success is unpredictable and fickle. What matters is keeping yourself challenged as a person and as a writer.”

What also matters: giving readers a character they care about, whether that story is explored in a novel, short story, essay, or memoir. Brown isn’t a fan of pitting forms or genres against one another, asserting that a good story is a good story no matter how it’s told. “If you want to know about stories, study movies,” she says, adding that she shows a clip from the 2004 flick Sideways to her writing students.

A returning judge, Brown had a bit of a heads-up on what to expect from this contest, but was still surprised by the quality of the entries: “There was something wonderful about each one.” She went back and forth between a few manuscripts but ultimately chose A Hundred Veils by Rea Keech for the finals of the BookLife Prize.

“It has an interesting setting, in Iran around the time of the revolution,” Brown says, noting that she was immediately drawn in. “The author had lived there, so it has lots of great lifelike details. It’s mostly a serious story, but occasionally it’s very funny, which is a hard combination to strike. It’s also a love story, which in this case serves as a metaphor for cultural expectations and conflict. It keeps you invested and asking what will happen next. It’s just a really nice entire package.”

Mark Dawson

What Are You Waiting For?

Google Mark Dawson and one of the first searches suggested (after his work and classes of course) is “Mark Dawson net worth.” That’s because the self-publishing all-star is—how do we put this delicately?—making mad coin, raking in six figures a year off of his books alone. But it’s not as though he’s kicking back watching the money roll in. The bestselling crime author is virtually always working—if not on writing, then on marketing and connecting with fans or aspiring writers.

After a disappointing go with a traditional press, Dawson began dabbling in self-publishing in 2011. By 2014 he was doing so well as an author that he was able to quit his job and devote himself entirely to his rapidly flourishing writing career. He may be especially talented and impressively prolific (releasing an average of five books per year), but Dawson insists that any author can be successful if he or she is dedicated and has the chops.

“I wouldn’t wait any longer,” Dawson says to writers still be on the fence about self-publishing. “Get it online and start selling it. Start building your tribe. There are plenty of examples of traditional publishers keeping an eye on the charts and offerings deals to big selling indies. (It’s happened to me.) Doesn’t mean you have to accept those offers, and you might not want to—but you’ll never know unless you take action.”

Though it was dozens of books ago, Dawson vividly recalls the challenges he faced when he first set out as a self-published author. As a judge in the BookLife Prize, he hopes to be a source of support. “I remember what it was like to be starting out, and the ability to help someone get a head start with their publishing career was too good to pass up,” he notes.

Compassionate as Dawson is, his patience wears thin; he’s not willing to sit around for pages on end for a book to get interesting. “I think you can get a pretty good idea from the first few lines,” he says. “A good writer is usually pretty obvious.”

Dawson’s expectations of great crime novels are straightforward and no-nonsense, as is his advice for aspiring indie novelists: “You need to be able to do both—write and promote—in order to stand a chance of making it in a busy market.”

Dawson selected Face Value by Ian Andrew for the BookLife Prize finals, praising the book for its “taut writing, bone-crushing action, and a pace that never relents.”

Vic James

Calling All YA Memoirs

When Vic James completed her first novel a decade ago, she didn’t go out for celebratory drinks or proceed to query. Convinced that she’d written something “truly terrible,” she locked the manuscript in a drawer and set out on a career in TV production.

She didn’t look back, until she got an idea for a brilliant fantasy novel that she just couldn’t shake. “I started writing frantically, and ended up with a first draft I wasn’t ashamed of,” says James, who now writes full time. “Writers are a phenomenally self-doubting and self-critical bunch—as we should be, because it drives us to produce our best work—but most of us also possess Spidey-senses that tingle when we’ve got a good ’un, and I knew this might be it.”

James’s instincts were spot on. The Gilded Cage is a beautifully wrought, suspenseful YA fantasy that centers on the power struggles of the 99% against the cruel, enchanted elite. It sold to Del Rey at Random House and was published earlier this year. The press also scooped up the next two books in the series, both scheduled for a 2018 release.

Though James went the traditional route with her books, she’s an avid supporter of indie writers and reads droves of self-published books and even some unpublished serials on Wattpad. “All good writing deserves to find readers, and judging a contest designed to help unpublished and indie writers find an audience really appealed [to me],” she says.

James’s pick for the finals of this year’s contest is Faithful and Devoted by Jenna Rose Robbins, which she describes as “a vivid and immersive account of a superfan’s trip to see her idols, Depeche Mode, in concert, that’s also a heartfelt coming-of-age story.” She was struck by Robbins’s decision to opt for memoir over fiction, a move she wishes more YA writers would make.

“As I lost myself in Robbins’s escapades, in which not everyone behaves well and more than a few hard truths are learned, I found myself wondering where all the YA memoirs are,” James says. “There are some gems out there, but memoir is perfectly suited to capturing the intensity of teen experience, as Robbins does here. More, please!”

Taran Matharu

A Pure, Beautiful Experience

Taran Matharu, a returning judge, became a fan of middle grade novels at the age that most people do: as a child. But, unlike so many kids, Matharu never outgrew his dedication to the genre.

“I stayed attached even as a teenager and, of course, now as an adult,” says Matharu, who has been on a writing rampage pretty much since he was nine years old, and has no plans of slowing down. The digital nomad, currently traveling in South America, has a fourth book in the popular fantasy series Summoner (a prequel called The Outcast) coming out next May, and then a new sci-fi series, also middle grade, slated for debut in 2019.

Matharu may be on a middle grade roll, but it wasn’t one that he had necessarily anticipated. In fact, when he first started sharing his work on Wattpad, and then sold the Summoner series to the Macmillan imprint Feiwel and Friends, he didn’t know whether the work would qualify as middle grade, YA, or adult fiction.

“When I wrote my first book, I had no idea when it would be placed in the market,” Matharu says. “When my book was put out to publishers, it was considered middle grade, YA, and adult because it straddled all three.”

Matharu feels that the series was ultimately classified as middle grade because of the accessibility of the prose, the age of the characters, and the absence of overly graphic scenes. “What I like about middle grade is that the plots tend to not be muddied by romance and violence, making for a very pure, beautiful experience,” Matharu says, adding that though the plot may be less convoluted than fiction aimed at older readers, it is hardly simplistic. He recently secured another deal with Macmillan for a companion guide to the Summoner series, a work that will provide a comprehensive breakdown of all the different levels and statistics of the series’ demons, along with detailed backstories and other fan treasures.

As a BookLife judge, Matharu is not necessarily looking for the same level of complexity as readers might find in his books, but he is keen on richness, pacing, and story, and though he leans toward action books that are not set in contemporary times, he’s “trying to ignore subject matter and just look at it from the characters’ perspectives.”

Matharu chose The Accidental Pirate by Denise Deegan for the BookLife Prize finals. He called it “a swashbuckling pirate adventure on the high seas.”

Julie Powell

Immediate Distance

Julie Powell has not only lived the blogger’s dream: she helped create it. The author and judge of the memoir category (a new genre for the BookLife Prize) launched the Julie/Julia Project blog in 2002, during what she calls “the Wild, Wild West days” of the blogosphere. The blog, chronicling her attempts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, became a sensation and landed her a book deal with Little, Brown, and Company. Then the book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen was turned into Julie Julia, the Nora Ephron–adapted hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams (as Powell).

“It was crazy,” Powell says of the deluge of success, but notes that it didn’t happen overnight. “I spent a year doing the blog, and then the book happened and then the movie. It’s like when you put a lobster in a pot of lukewarm water: by the time you’re boiling, you’re used to it.”

Powell is quick to assert that to an extent she was in the right place at the right time. But, she’s also a savvy writer who recognized that a collection of blogs does not make a book.

“People wanted me to basically print the blog out because no one knew how to [turn it into a book],” Powell says. “I knew that wouldn’t work.”

Still, Powell credits blogging with granting her the space to get out there and experiment, and feels that writing memoir was key to her self-discovery as a writer—and that a great memoir, “a 13 out of 10,” is incredibly hard to pull off. She adds, with a self-deprecating laugh, that she doesn’t believe she has written one.

“A remarkable memoir brings immediacy laced with insight and wisdom,” Powell says. “If you can find something that is hard and beautiful, that’s the gold. It’s really tough to do about your own experiences, to have that distance that still feels immediate.”

It’s this rare gem of a memoir that Powell seeks as a BookLife judge. “If you’re honest and generous, the memoir will be worth it, but there will probably still be some tense family dinners,” she says.

Powell selected Beautiful Hero by Jennifer Lau for the finals of the BookLife Prize, praising the book as a “crushing and all-too-relevant story of one refugee family’s fight to survive in the wake of war, starvation, and genocidal cruelty.”

Tim Pratt

Patience with Monsters

Tim Pratt, a returning judge for the BookLife Prize (in the SF, fantasy, and horror category), may spend a long time thinking about an idea, but, once he sits down to write, he needs only a weekend to complete a story.

“I almost always know how it’s going to end,” says Pratt, who publishes a new short fiction work every month on Patreon. “I’ve been doing this professionally for 15 years now, and I spent my whole childhood trying to figure it out, so I’ve broken past the process of having to write pages over and over.”

Pratt is a hybrid author, self-publishing as he deems fit, but also publishing the traditional route. On November 7, Angry Robot released The Wrong Stars, a novel that Pratt enthusiastically describes as “a sci-fi space opera battle.”

Though fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are distinct categories, Pratt finds their readerships tend to overlap. An avid writer and reader of all three, he doesn’t cherish one over the other, but there is one aspect that he values above all. “I’m a character person,” Pratt says. “I want characters who are psychologically believable no matter how unbelievable their situation is; I want the way they deal with it to be convincing.”

Pratt is also a sucker for a turn of events that he didn’t see coming yet at the same time makes total sense. It is for all these reasons (character development, intense situations, and great yet fathomable surprise) that his pick for the BookLife Prize finals is Transference by Kate Jonuska.

“The main character is a terrible person. I was waiting for him to be eaten by a monster,” Pratt says. “He’s irredeemable, but you end up understanding why he became the way that he is.”

Though it is easy to root for an obviously heroic character, Pratt adds, it’s always more interesting to fall for characters such as Jonuska’s, who “struggle with darkness.” And yet, such darkness can be a hard sell when it comes to traditional publishers.

“A lot of publishers who receive this manuscript could be turned off by this character and not stick with the novel long enough to know why he is the way he is and that he is capable of growth,” Pratt says. “I hope this author knows she’s on the right track and that she keeps writing weird characters and taking chances: that’s a big advantage of self-publishing.”

Rebekah Weatherspoon

We Have a Long Way to Go

Our romance judge, Rebekah Weatherspoon, started writing in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2010 that any of her work saw the light of the day. By that time, she estimates, she’d completed four fan-fic novels. She may very well have gone on writing privately were it not for a revelation.

“If I was going to write that much, I might as well get a check,” Weatherspoon says, adding that the push to get her work into the hands of readers wasn’t a matter of building up the confidence, but a matter of “wanting to be paid for something I was spending so much time on.”

Weatherspoon’s debut novel, Better Off Red (which kicked off the Vampire Sorority Sisters series), is suspenseful lesbian erotica with a fair share of paranormal play. It was published by Bold Strokes Books in 2011. She’s since had several more books published with BSB, but the Los Angeles–based author isn’t bent on traditional. Weatherspoon also self-publishes, noting that she has gone indie with two novels and six novellas. Her hybrid sensibility seems to help her stay prolific: in the past six years, she’s had 14 books published.

Weatherspoon’s readership probably wouldn’t mind seeing her unleash many more volumes. “Romance readers read so much, and it’s great to know they are always hungry for books as fast as you can write them,” she says. Weatherspoon is currently working on a holiday novella before digging into book three of her Beards Bondage romantic suspense series.

The undying devotion of romance readers may be a source of motivation, but Weatherspoon finds that the industry isn’t without its letdowns. “The biggest disappointment, especially when it comes to working in romance—where there are so many bright, talented women—is the amount of discrimination marginalized authors come up against within publishing,” says Weatherspoon, who runs the Tumblr page #WOCinRomance. “We have a long way to go.”

As a writer, Weatherspoon prides herself on the ability to “inject humor into all of [her] stories, even in darker romantic suspense,” but what she’s really looking for as a BookLife judge, is “a hook that keeps me turning pages.”

Weatherspoon selected A Scandalous Matter by Margaret Locke for the finals of the BookLife Prize, calling the novel “an extremely clever time travel romance that has you rooting for the intelligent, earnest heroine from the first page of her amazing, magical love story.”

Nicole Audrey Spector is a writer whose work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker.

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