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November 21, 2016
By Nicole Audrey Spector
The semifinal round of the BookLife Prize in Fiction will be judged by six bestselling and award-winning authors.

Eleanor Brown: Writing to Answer a Question

The idea of the struggling novelist may be cliché, but Eleanor Brown—our general fiction judge—lends honesty and depth to the notion because she’s a successful novelist who still struggles creatively. “Novels are a tough nut to crack,” says Brown. “They’re just so complex. It took me a number of tries to get something that was worthy of other people’s time, which was my first novel [The Weird Sisters], published in 2011.”

Brown admits that her debut did very well, but, even after her initial success, she faced the all-too-familiar struggle with her second novel, The Light of Paris (Random House, July 2016). “It took a number of tries with that novel, too,” she says.

To keep sane and stay interested in writing, Brown is working on shorter pieces, such as book reviews and nonfiction focused on CrossFit, one of her passions. In 2013, her book WOD Motivation: Quotes, Inspiration, Affirmations, and Wisdom to Stay Mentally Tough was published by Adams Media.

Brown is also devoted to helping others—self-described writers or not—find their voices and stories as authors, and she teaches writing workshops at the Writers’ Table in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. “I found that being able to write full time, which is the dream, can also be dangerous,” Brown says. “It means your self-worth rises and falls based on what writing you have, and sometimes it’s outside of your control. I wanted to get out of myself and care about other people’s writing projects.”

As a BookLife Prize judge, Brown is looking for work that asks questions and explores ideas about who we are and the problems we face and that reveals an author’s unique investment in the issue at hand. “Yes, character matters, yes, voice matters, yes, story matters, but I’m always looking for the something extra that I feel others can connect to,” Brown says. “I’m looking for a story that says something. It doesn’t have to make a grand statement about life. It can be really intimate and small, but a story that has real meaning is important. A lot of people may go straight to literary fiction, but one of my favorite books to teach from is Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. It’s light chick lit, but it asks interesting questions about consumerism and the way we present ourselves. You can find that in any story, so long as it’s honest and the author is aware.”

Amanda Hocking: Out of This World

Amanda Hocking, author and the judge of our YA category, says she has a difficult time describing her own work. When you take into consideration that she’s writing YA paranormal romance that features monsters, vampires, trolls, and other bizarre beings, you may cut her some slack. Her writing embraces some wildly strange stuff that must be read to be understood.

But, however unearthly Hocking’s characters may be, they’re not without relatable qualities, and Hocking writes with the goal of creating tough female protagonists—of this world or not. “I look to pen strong female leads and use a lot of paranormal elements [in] the obstacles they face,” says Hocking, a 32-year-old Minnesotan who got her start publishing in 2010, initially on Amazon and then with other self-publishing platforms.

Her self-published work took off. No, it skyrocketed. One of the greatest early examples of self-publishing success, Hocking made millions off her first series, My Blood Approves.

Despite the ability to pocket so much of the proceeds (one of self-publishing’s greatest attributes), Hocking signed with St. Martin’s Press in 2011. “As book sales started blowing up, it was a lot of work for me to do on my own,” Hocking says. “I wanted someone to help with marketing and editing and the other aspects that aren’t writing.”

To date Hocking estimates that she has published 20 books, about half of them on her own and half with St. Martin’s. She’s returning to self-publishing this month, at this point only with one novel, Swear, the final book in the My Blood Approves series. “I am self-publishing because the publisher didn’t want it given that it’s about vampires and that’s not popular anymore,” Hocking says, adding that this may be her only return to self-publishing, because she much prefers for a publisher to handle the marketing.

The fact that Hocking’s latest novel doesn’t fall into a popular category in YA paranormal shows that she is not too concerned with trends. But she does look for edge and innovation.

“What is great about YA is that you can bend genres and themes,” Hocking says. “In this contest, I’m hoping to see something innovative that incorporates different things and pushes the envelope.”

Taran Matharu: From Going Viral to Going Traditional

YA fantasy author Taran Matharu—our judge for the middle grade category—was nearly set on working in business until he discovered that he could actually make a career out of being an author. Three years ago, the now-25-year-old Londoner decided to participate in NaNoWriMo and joined the online storytelling community Wattpad to share his work in progress. It was then and there that the Summoner Trilogy was born, with the first novel, The Novice, quickly coming to life over the course of that month.

“Initially, I didn’t get much feedback,” Matharu says of the book, which he describes as “Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings meets Pokémon.” But, a few days in, Matharu picked up one devoted reader in Indonesia who was reading every chapter and posting exultant reviews.

That was all it took to get the buzz started, and the readers pouring in. “By the end of the month [it] had been read 100,000 times,” Matharu says. “Four months in, it hit a million reads.”

A million reads sounds like it converts to a lot of dough, right? Nope. Wattpad is less a self-publishing platform than it is a social media site for readers and writers. No transactions take place, only liking and sharing, which, with more than 40 million users across the world, can enable projects to “go viral,” as happened with Matharu’s book.

Soon after Matharu crossed the one-million-reads threshold, he got a call from an NBC journalist writing about serialized fiction. The journalist included him and some of the concept art he’d commissioned in the piece. “The day after it came out, I got interest from an audiobook publisher,” the author says.

Matharu then reached out to agents and ultimately secured a book deal with the Macmillan imprint Feiwel and Friends. The Battlemage, the third book in the Summoner Trilogy, publishes next May. For now, Matharu wants to stick with traditional publishing but imagines that if ever he were writing “faster than publishers wanted to publish,” he’d consider self-publishing on the side.

On occasion, Matharu still shares work for free via Wattpad, a platform that he uses not only to continue to grow his audience, but also to discover new voices. While he tends to favor fantasy, he values any type of story that creates a world and sucks the reader in—without a headache. “I’m looking for something easy to read, that flows well, and a world that pulls you in, even if it’s set in the microcosm of a high school, for example,” he says.

Courtney Milan: The Human Struggles at the Heart of Romance

Romance/erotica judge Courtney Milan found that there was only so much reading she could do before the craving to start writing herself overwhelmed her. “I read all my life, particularly historical romance, and there was a point where I hit a critical mass,” the author of historical fiction says. “I started writing. This was in 2006, when I was 30 years old.”

Within two years from the time she first put pen to page, Milan was picked up by HQN. “I was with them for four books, which, given the lag between contract and publication, [added up to] about three years. I then started self-publishing around the end of 2010.”

Milan was inspired to self-publish, she says, after witnessing “authors like Amanda Hocking selling book after book in a way no one could imagine.” But what truly sold her on going indie was the promise of having control over every aspect of her work.

“I get really stressed out over not having control, and with self-publishing, I can make choices about things (like covers) that I wouldn’t have made,” Milan says. “I have freedom.”

Though self-publishing is famously demanding of its authors, who must also be aggressive marketers and fast workers in order to succeed, Milan doesn’t rush or frenzy herself. She puts out an average of two full-length novels a year, which she admits is “slow for romance fiction,” and doesn’t sweat the stuff that’s out of her control, like what’s trending and whether her novels will attract every romance reader.

“I don’t really have an opinion on other people’s opinions, if that makes sense,” Milan says. “There’s no one romance reader and no one trend.”

What Milan does care about is telling a story that, she says, feels “emotionally real,” which is also what she seeks as a reader. “I look for characters tackling real, human struggles and who are better for getting through those struggles together,” Milan says. “The world is messy and complicated, and no one book can capture it all, but I am looking for something that captures something real for that author. And it certainly doesn’t have to be realistic to be authentic.”

Jason Pinter: A Press to Impress—and Even Thrill

Jason Pinter, who is judging the BookLife Prize’s mystery/thriller category, worked at traditional publishing houses before branching out to launch his own press, Polis Books, in 2013. The New York City–based press publishes in both hardcover and paperback, as well as digital.

“I wanted to establish an independent publisher that had the nimbleness and scrappiness of a small press but the professionalism of a larger publisher,” Pinter says, adding that he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. It helped him get far in publishing as an editor, but also contributed to his frustrations with bureaucratic decision-making processes that were so often beyond his control.

“There were just so many cooks in the kitchen, and every time you want to acquire something, you have to go through so many departments,” Pinter says. “An editor only has so much to say as those around him allow, and a book can die on the vine.”

Polis publishes all sorts of literature, but has an affinity for thrillers and mystery, genres that Pinter has always been a fan of. “I grew up loving the Black Orchid,” he says, referring to the now closed Manhattan bookshop that specialized in mystery. “I would go there with my father every couple weeks, and he’d buy a big bag of books and then pass them on to me.”

Pinter is also a novelist, and prior to launching Polis published several thrillers of his own, along with a children’s book. At the moment, though, he has put writing on hold to concentrate on growing Polis.

“When you’re running a press, there’s no such thing as nine to five or weekends,” Pinter says. “This takes up all my time, but I plan to get back to writing soon.”

As a diehard crime fiction fan, Pinter says he’s not looking for any particular subgenre when he sits down to read a new book. What he does seek, however, are compelling characters.

“If I’m spending 300–400 pages reading about characters, I have to like their company, even if they’re not likable people,” Pinter says, adding that he also appreciates a deeply detailed atmosphere that keeps the pages turning. “After character and atmosphere, if the author has something new to say, that is exciting for me.”

Tim Pratt: Caring About Horrible People

Author Tim Pratt admired all the arts growing up, but was most attracted to writing for one all too practical reason: “I was poor Southern trailer trash. And writing was cheap.”

Pratt, the judge of the SF/fantasy/horror category, says his first love was poetry, which he began publishing in college. As he kept at it, his interest in sci-fi and fantasy took off and soon he was publishing short stories in those genres. In 2005, he hit what he calls “his highest point:” Michael Chabon chose one of his stories, “Hart and Boot,” for reprint in that year’s edition of The Best American Short Stories.

Soon after, Pratt received a Hugo Award for his short story “Impossible Dreams.” All the while, he was toiling away on novels, which he writes prolifically.

“I’ve published more than 30 books in the past decade,” says Pratt, who publishes both traditionally and on his own. He cites Patreon among his favorite self-publishing platforms, saying it has allowed him to return to his preferred form, short stories.

“I started over a year ago to publish a story a month, and that’s been really great—now I’m getting around $700 in pledges a month,” Pratt says of the platform. “It feels like being a new writer again, challenging myself, and getting paid what I’d get from a magazine, while [maintaining the option] to sell them as reprints.”

Pratt describes his work as urban contemporary fantasy, with his favorite aspect of the genre being its ability to turn real-world problems into rich metaphors. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of magic intruding in the everyday world,” Pratt says. “You can write about somebody being in a house that’s been foreclosed on [and show that] by having their house beset by monsters.”

Despite being a big horror fan (he was reading Stephen King in the third grade), Pratt has found himself drifting from the genre as a writer. “I moved away from horror because my worldview just isn’t that dark,” he says. “Life is pretty amazing, and I believe that people can overcome anything.”

Still, as a reader, Pratt loves to be seduced into caring for despicable people. “I want authors to trick my brain into caring about characters as though they’re real, even if they’re awful people,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be potboilery,” he adds. “Just give me those characters, a plot that moves along, and maybe something I haven’t seen before.”

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