Meet the Judges of the 2020 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest
Each year, a panel of guest authors bring their valuable perspectives to the BookLife Prize judging table. Here, we get to know the writers who selected the 2020 fiction finalists.
Orna Ross is the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, an organization that offers services, support, and guidance to indie writers. Ross, who is from Ireland and currently lives in London, is also an accomplished author. Her own books include Blue Mercy, the Irish Trilogy, and others.
Tell me a bit about the Alliance of Independent Authors and a few of the organization's successes.
What I’m most proud of is the quality of our community. We have thousands of members, from those just starting out to those who are well-established, six- and seven- figure authors, and others who are winning prizes and awards. ALLi is pronounced “ally” and that sense of allegiance and collaboration is so strong. Our members are wise, savvy, and unfailingly generous with their time and expertise.
In your experience, what are some common mistakes you see indie authors make that may result in their books not receiving the attention they would like?
Too many authors want to hand off the marketing task, but it is best done by the author, with assistance. The most common mistake is authors not understanding where the book slots into the publishing ecosystem—the genre, sub-genre and niche, ideal readers, and comparable authors. Not establishing a clear enough brand and not giving the reader a clear sense of their books and themselves.
From your perspective, how critical is it for authors to form supportive communities?
It’s imperative for some, not so important for others. I think social media, when managed well, is the perfect way to tap in. It’s written words, not spoken, and you control how much or how little you want to do. The perfect social outlet for a tribe that doesn’t tend to be all that social!
You’ve both self-published your books and published traditionally. Do you feel that indie publishing is the way of the future?
It’s the way of now and the way of the future. More and more authors, organizations, and companies are going to come to understand the strengths of self-publishing. While there will always be a place for those who invest in talent and a good story or idea, self-publishing will become the standard and trade publishing the exception.
Few mystery writers can boast that they have experience working in the Central Intelligence Agency. Author Carmen Amato draws from her former career with the CIA to write her Detective Emilia Cruz series, which takes place in Acapulco, Mexico.
Have you always considered yourself a writer?
I have always loved writing and wordsmithing. For years I wrote on the weekends, planning for a second career as a fiction writer. It pays to never give up on a dream.
How has your former career in the CIA informed your writing?
The CIA taught me to write on demand and under tight deadlines. Over a 30-year career, I encountered many of the personalities that now populate my fiction books. Some of my personal experiences are in there, too.
Tell me about the inspiration behind the Detective Emilia Cruz series?
After an armed drug addict disrupted my church on Christmas Eve in Mexico, I began writing about Mexico's drug crime and corruption. I published my first thriller, The Hidden Light of Mexico City, in 2012. A visit to Acapulco, and seeing the highs and lows of that incredible city, grew into the first Emilia Cruz novel, Cliff Diver. She's the first female police detective in Acapulco, a construct that allows me to tackle crime, corruption, and gender inequality in Mexico.
What would be your advice for mystery authors looking to achieve verisimilitude in their writing?
Readers today are very savvy and they'll catch errors regarding setting and continuity. Take your time, do the research, and give your readers a quality experience.
How has your writing changed as a result of the pandemic?
I stepped away temporarily from Mexican cartels and went to work on a project based on the stories of my late grandfather, who was Deputy Sheriff of Oneida County, New York. The result is the forthcoming Galliano Club series, set in upstate New York in 1926. It's been great to immerse myself in family history, as well as the history of Prohibition.
A returning judge, Tim Pratt is the author of 30 sci-fi and fantasy books. He has both self-published his books and published his work traditionally, and considers himself “very much a hybrid author.”
How are you weathering 2020?
I live in Berkeley, California, and we tightened things up pretty early here, and haven't returned to pre-pandemic restriction levels at any point since. It's definitely harder to write than it used to be, and the combination of pandemic (and more recently election) stress has made concentration in general difficult, but I'm still finding comfort and escape in my work. (I hope people find comfort and escape while reading it!)
What are you reading and writing these days?
Just finished up The Patient, a horror novel by Jasper DeWitt in the form of forum posts, and am about to start The Lightness by Emily Temple. My overall favorite book for the year is probably Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I'm currently writing the second novel in a space opera series set in the world of the Twilight Imperium strategy game.
Any advice for budding sci-if authors?
For writers in general: read a lot, inside your genre and out, and write more than you read. Finish things, and then write something new; you can't learn if you don't keep pushing yourself to the edge of your competence and beyond. For sci-fi authors in particular, feed your brain lots of nonfiction, and not just science: read philosophy, mythology, and history (reading primary sources will teach you SO much about point-of-view). Having a wide knowledge base about our big strange universe and the cultures and peoples of Earth will help you imagine more interesting futures and alternative presents and pasts.
Rebecca Sky, a returning BookLife Prize judge, is a YA author whose books include Arrowheart and Heartstruck, and she has recently contributed to the forthcoming anthology, Every Body Shines (Bloomsbury, 2021).
How have you been doing during the pandemic?
I’m a spoonie, (I have a slew of chronic illnesses and live in 24/7 chronic pain) and my partner works frontline, so we made the decision early in the year to live apart. I was lucky a family member owns a condo on a closed ski hill, so I spent the first six months of this year on my own, watching the seasons change, and trying not to rack up the data on my phone plan. I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that 2020 wouldn’t be my most productive year; it was okay to allow my mental and physical health to have a front seat, even if that meant less work got accomplished.
What’s your wish list for YA and/or middle grade novels? (What would you like to see more of?)
I’d definitely like to see more body diversity. The majority of North Americans are considered plus size and yet, a minute percentage of books feature fat characters, and when they do it is often with stereotype and or the characters are a punchline. It’s time for literature to normalize normal bodies.
Tell me about Every Body Shines and what it was like to work alongside other authors?
The lineup is filled with some of my all-time favorite authors: Renée Watson, Clair Kann, Monique Gray Smith, and Amanda Lovelace (who is my favorite poetess — her book The Princess Saves Herself in This One was instrumental in my journey to viewing my body and place in this world with worth, and it also helped me tremendously when I was leaving my childhood religion). It is the honor of my career to be included in this important anthology alongside these brilliant authors.
From your perspective, what makes a great YA or middle grade book?
The characters. We are all relatable, no matter our differences.
What are you working on now?
I’m just wrapping a YA body Positivity romcom featuring a Fat MC and a disabled love interest. (Shocking, I know. Ha!).
Alexandria House is the author of the McClaine Brothers series, the Strickland Sisters series, and many other standalone and serial romances. As she describes on her author site, she's a "music-loving fashionista" who writes "steamy stories about real black love."
Where do you look for inspiration?
Everywhere! Music, movies, a good book, the weather, news stories, and even people watching can spark a story.
What is your advice for budding romance authors?
Trust your characters and your story. Most of all, trust your own unique writing voice. Be an innovator rather than an imitator.
What are some positive changes you’ve seen in the romance and erotica genres in recent years?
The emergence of Incredibly talented indie authors with huge followings.
This is a wonderful time to be a romance reader!
Are there certain romance novels you’d like to see more of?
I would love to see more African American paranormal romances.
Has the pandemic impacted your writing?
Definitely! Like everyone else, I experience the adjustment pains and anxiety that are side effects of the pandemic, which has made writing a bit more laborious than usual for me, but I’m soldiering on. After all, I love writing love stories!