My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?

My 2014 Whitney Awards Ballot

The voting window for the 2014 Whitney Awards* closed last week. The gala takes place Saturday, May 16, 2015, and you still have two more days to purchase tickets. I’ve already explained my criteria for judging the nominations for the historical fiction category and shared some advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction. Now, it’s time to reveal how I ranked the five finalists (and if you paid attention to my previous posts, this list won’t come as a huge surprise):

  1. Softly Falling by Carla Kelly
  2. An Ocean atween Us by Angela Morrison
  3. Eve: In The Beginning by H.B. Moore
  4. Deadly Alliance, by A. L. Sowards
  5. Gone for a Soldier by Marsha Ward

As a nominations judge, I was invited to vote in any of the other finalists categories that I wanted to (and read all the books in), but I decided that I didn’t want to do another huge reading push so I just voted in the Historical Fiction category. I kind of wish that the big push for this wasn’t in March and April because they tend to be busy months for me in other areas of my life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want the awards to be any later than they are.

*I’ve been inconsistent in how I refer to the awards. Technically these are the awards for books published in 2014 so The Whitney Awards organizations call them the 2014 awards even though they are awarded in 2015.

Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction

As I revealed earlier in the year, I was a finalists judge for historical fiction for this year’s Whitney Awards. I’ll reveal my ballot after the awards are presented, but since that doesn’t happen until May, here’s some advice for Mormons who write or are considering writing historical fiction.

Keep in mind that I don’t write historical fiction myself and haven’t read deeply in the genre so my advice may not be worth much. But my exposure to it includes: reading all of the historical fiction nominees this year, reading the historical fiction finalists back in [[insert year]], other reading of Mormon historical fiction, other reading of historical fiction published in the past three decades, other reading of fantasy fiction that draws on historical fiction, reading of quite a few novels from the main eras that authors write historical fiction in (the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries), reading of nonfiction from/about those eras, and reading of several of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Scott, along with Jane Porter, launched the genre of historical fiction. This is all to say that while it’s not one of my primary genres, I do have some familiarity with its tropes and forms and what it can do well. Continue reading “Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction”

Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge

The book covers for the 2015 finalists in the historical fiction category of the Whitney AwardsThe finalists for the 2015 Whitney Awards were announced on Monday. I had a particular interest in the announcement this year because I was a finalists judge. My last participation with the Whitney Awards was back in 2009 when I was a member of the voting academy. For that, you try and read the finalists for each category and you can vote for each category that you complete (there were a lot less categories back then). Being a finalists judge is different. You read every book that was nominated (and remember that it only takes 5 nominations to be part of the nomination pool). It was an interesting process. I’m not sure that I want to repeat it. Then again, I’m not sure if I’ll be asked back. And then again, a few days ago, I would have said never again, and I’ve already warmed back up to “not sure”.

I was asked to be a judge in the historical fiction category. The organizers ask what categories you’d be willing to judge. I told them any of them (yes, even romance). And I meant it. I’m fairly widely read in all of the genres, especially a lot of the foundational texts of the various genre categories. Because I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again, and because even if I do, there’s no telling what category I might get (and because I’m not going to spill all the beans), I feel comfortable sharing a few things about the process.

On the Historical Fiction Finalists

I read every page of all of the nominees, finished the final title 48 (or so) hours before the deadline to submit the ballot and completed my voting more than 24 hours before deadline. Of the five finalists, three overlap with my top five. I’d say that’s pretty good. After the winners are announced, I will post my top 5 and which one I’d pick as the winner. Continue reading “Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge”

Attention Whitney Nominators

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The Whitneys are an awards program for novels written by LDS authors. Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle in the LDS church, prophesied “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” It is our hope to be a part of that journey toward excellence by honoring the LDS writers also working toward that goal.

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Who’s a Whitney nominator? Well, anyone. You can be if you want to. Go nominate something now. Feels good, doesn’t it? Now if that novel receives four more nominations, it will get attention paid it by the official judges. It’s a cool system, very open and egalitarian.

Books are available to be nominated from January One to December Thirty-one the year of its release. Which is an inherent unfairness since As You Are has had three hundred sixty-five days to be nominated since its official release date and The Bishop’s Wife will only have two.

To make fair, this post is designed to celebrate Decemberish releases and suggest to nominators that these books deserve attention from the Whitney committee. (So only mention in the comments books likely deserving of such attention.)

Here are three to get us started. I’ll periodically update this post to include your suggestions:

Nov 22:  Eve: In the Beginning by H. B. Moore [Heather’s books always get attention. This deals with our primary myth so if it’s good at all it will deserve that attention.]

Dec 5: City Of Brick And Shadow by Tim Wirkus [I’m about fifty pages into this novel starring American missionaries in South America. I’ll be writing more about this book later, but I am incredibly excited about it. Wonderfully written and doing everything the way I want things done in a nationally published Mormon novel.]

Dec. 30: The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison [I’ve mentioned this one before.]

My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites

So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so).  So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).

FAVORITE MORMON PLAY: MELISSA LEILANI LARSON’S MARTYRS’ CROSSING

MARTYRS' CROSSINGSo, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing for Saints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would  call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”

FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE

Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief,  but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. Continue reading “My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites”

An open letter to the Whitney Awards Committee

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I’m a big fan of the Whitney Awards. I think they’ve filled a need with great success and have been managed professionally and sensibly. I’m always certain to nominate books I read that qualify and are deserving, and every year intend to actually act on my Academy membership and vote a category, but never quite succeed.

I do have two suggestions that I believe would further improve the Whitneys which I would like to humbly present publicly, in order to invite an open discussion of my suggestions’ merits.

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Suggestion the first: Expand the borders of date eligibility Continue reading “An open letter to the Whitney Awards Committee”

A poll for those entering Everyday Mormon Writer's upcoming contest

With just over 10 days left to enter Everyday Mormon Writer’s , I thought I’d see if we can get a sense of which centuries AMVers are focusing on. If you have entered or are planning on entering the contest, please answer the following question.

If you have no idea what I’m taking about, read my interview with James Goldberg on the contest. Or click the link in the first sentence of this post.

Full disclosure: I have entered the 20th, 21st and 22nd century contests.

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