I Was A Secret Bram Stoker Judge


I didn't release any new books in 2018. I have a good excuse for that, and it's nothing to do with the dog eating my homework.

For the whole year I was Chair of one of the juries for the prestigious international Bram Stoker Awards, run by the HWA /  Horror Writers Association (an organisation I'm a professional member of).

Background On The Bram Stokers And The Judging Process

The Bram Stoker Awards have been running since 1987. They celebrate the best horror and dark fiction released each calendar year. The winners are announced the following year. So the 2018 award submissions were all horror works published between 1st January 2018 and 31st December 2018; then the winners were announced in 2019, at StokerCon in the US - though in 2020 StokerCon will be coming to the UK (Scarborough).

For those who don't know about it, there are numerous categories every year: novels, anthologies, screenplays, short stories etc. There are a huge number of submissions in each category, which get whittled down to a long list for the preliminary ballot (one of my works was in the preliminary ballot once), then to a short list, and finally to an overall winner. You'll find the 2018 short lists and overall winners here.

How do the submissions get whittled down to these shorter lists? It's refreshingly democratic for a big prize, which no single avenue that controls everything. There are two parallel procedures. One is that HWA members all submit and vote for works, to create one list. However, there is also a jury for each category, which looks at all the submissions and rates them, and that creates another list. Finally, the two lists are combined to come up with the preliminary ballot list. Having two systems in tandem helps prevent any bias from skewing things, and leads to longlists as a result of a lot of input, deliberation, considered critiquing, and popular voting.

I said I was a secret judge. One of the jury guidelines that the judges don't announce their position on a jury publicly, while they are serving. Presumably it's to prevent any risks or accusations of bribery or manipulation. The authors of the works up for consideration have no idea who is on the juries. All works get treated equally. Only after the whole process is completed, and the judges have no more impact on the awards (i.e. after the votes are all tallied in January), can a judge mention what they did.

My jury were responsible for the Long Fiction category. Long Fiction was defined as 7,500 - 39,999 words (above that it was classed as a novel; below that, a short story). I was appointed as Chair of the jury, so had additional responsibilities in terms of dealing with award-related queries about rules or eligibility, liaising with my jury, setting out the jury voting system and compiling votes, giving updates and so on. A lot happens during the year, not even including all the reading! My jury contained four other respected authors and people connected with the horror industry.

Oh, just in case you wondered: jurors don't receive any payment. It is always volunteers who give their time freely to help in the smooth running of the awards. People are judges as a way of giving something back to the organisation and profession.

In my case, I had an extra reason for volunteering my time: I believe that in any writing competition, the only important criteria for eligibility is the quality of the work itself, not the route to publication. It makes no difference if a book is independently published (author keeps their rights), or trade published (author assigns rights to a publisher in exchange for a smaller cut of royalties). If a competition is claiming to find the best book, then it has to include all books. If it excludes independently-published books and only considers trade-published books, then it is doing a disservice to authors and also lying to the readers - how can it say it found the best book when it didn't even consider many titles? I've written about this topic before, many times. With any prize, always investigate whether it excludes works based on route to publication or not (unfortunately, if they do exclude independent books, the prize organisors will often try to hide this fact, and certainly won't mention it in announcements). The Bram Stoker Awards, and HWA in general, are refreshingly non-discriminatory. Not all prizes and writing organisations are so progressive. Okay, rant over, let's get back on track.

Numbers

I read and scored around 93 works during the year, so that meant reading c.7-8 works a month. I wrote short summaries and critiques of what I felt were the pros and cons of each piece, paying attention to style, originality, plotting, characterisation, pace, and a stack of other criteria. I wanted each submission to get full consideration. My notes meant I could go to my spreadsheet of summaries and immediately recognise and remember each work, even when I returned to it twelve months later! You can see how being chair of a jury swallowed a lot of my time. Pleasure reading took a back seat to the volume of close reading I needed to do as part of this jury - yes, some of it was still pleasurable, but there was the work element of analysis added on top.

My Favourite Works Of 2018

I'm not going to give my jury's recommendations (they're always confidential), just my own top ten of the works I read in 2018. I've removed the scores and randomised the order, so it is just a list of ten horror works published in 2018 that I enjoyed. They're all available for you to go and seek out and read right now!

Cruce Roosters (Brent Michael Kelley)
I wrote about it in some detail here. Only yesterday, when I was in a writing group and talking about different approaches to exposition that avoid the staleness of infodumps, I used this book as an example of good practice (in this case, with its use of fictional adverts for world building). That's how much this wildly inventive work stuck with me.

Body of Christ (Mark Matthews)
It included many things I'd never seen before, was confident, and had depth from combining many unexpected elements. And that premise: "A boy secretly builds his own Jesus out of communion wafers and the flesh of his dad. On Halloween night, his Jesus shall rise." Genius. One of the books I recommended in my blog post Some Scary Books To Read In October.

You Are Released (Joe Hill)
One part of me felt bad for including this - it's not as if Joe Hill and his family need any more praise or horror awards! Generally I wanted to find fresh new voices that people hadn't heard of. Yet I couldn't ignore the quality of this work. Well-written, with nice shifts of voice with PoV, and compelling to read. It's exactly what good short fiction should be. It's not surprising that this made the overall shortlist for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction.

The Devil's Throat (Rena Mason)
An excellent story because of its interesting undersea setting, its creepiness, and the author's resistance to telling us every detail. I'm pleased that I championed this and it went on to become the overall winner for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction.

Black's Red Gold (Ed Kurtz)
Even though I didn't like any of the characters, this alien and bizarre story stuck with me for its haunting nature, gruesome detail, and possible message.

All Internal (Terence Hannum)
There were some clunky elements and issues with protagonist passivity, yet this gruesome body-horror story compelled me to read on, and stuck in my mind long after it had finished. It required work to unravel because it uses structure in a way that is confusing at first until you have an "aha!" moment regarding voice and perception, but I like things that are different. In fact, this story, and Black's Red Gold, and Cruce Roosters all help to illustrate something that's true for me (and which also applies to The Tank by Nicola Lombardi) - I would rather read a work that is half brilliant and half clunky, than something that is all average. After being involved with writing and publishing for so long, it's freshness and originality that I seek. I read a lot of books which are perfectly good in themselves, but they are going down routes which have been trodden so often before that the earth is too hard-packed to bear fruit. Life's too short for mediocrity. Seek out the things that make you feel something new instead, things which can surprise you.

Bent (Rebecca Rowland)
A gruesome short piece about horrible bondage.  The details got to me most.

The Barrens (Stephanie Feldman)
Some good horror tropes and nice writing, with hints of IT.

Midnight Gods (Greg F. Gifune)
A fast pace, with no slack or downtime. The ending wasn't as strong (I have an aversion to cliched good and evil) but this story still stuck in my mind. It's another of the books I recommended in my blog post Some Scary Books To Read In October.

Dead Air (Nino Cipri)
I like the structural format, which built tension and mystery well (though I'd have liked more distinction between voices and a fraction more resolution).

There were many others that I enjoyed, but this post is long enough already!

Looking Back On My Year As Chair

It was hard work. Reading so much, in such depth. And it dismayed me when a book with a great concept was let down by poor execution; or when there was great writing but it was let down by being based around a poor/cliched/overfamiliar story. Authors need to get both right. After all, judges want to discover great writing and promote new authors; authors need to make that easy for the judges. It reminds me of the comment at the end of one of the Bram Stoker submission forms:

HALT! Take your time. Make sure your recommendation is neatly formatted and complete. Remember, you're trying to impress the jury, not make their jobs harder.

So bear all that in mind if you are ever submitting work for an award. Although my comments above showed that I would high-rate a book for the brilliant elements, even if other elements were less good, not all judges think that way. Here are some other tips on what some judges and writing professionals look for in good fiction.

If you do submit anything, then good luck.

Despite the hard work, it was rewarding. I got to see a huge amount of contemporary work, like a snapshot of current writing, good and bad. It gave me an unprecedented understanding of current styles, market conditions, approaches, tropes, interests and trends. That's useful for me as an author, and also for any author clients I work with via my editing service.

I had a great jury to work with. They were supportive and friendly and professional, as were the HWA staff we worked with. One of the sweetest things was at the end of the year, when all the works had been read and judged and all the votes had been cast and tallied, and we could finally take a breather and wonder what the next year might hold now that we had done our duty. (A few of my fellow jurors immediately volunteered to do it again, but I wanted at least a year out!) There was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie, and people said lots of nice things about each other and me. I think this was my favourite quote:

"Thanks to Karl for being a superhero leader in our Long Fiction Category. He was a rockstar at keeping us on track and making sure the results were timely and fair."

I've always wanted to be a rock star. :-)

Thanks for reading.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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