This is the another in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the judge in some of the best known crime fiction awards.
Ayo Onatade commentates on all things crime fiction. She writes articles and gives papers on all aspects of the crime and mystery genre. She blogs at Shotsmag Confidential, writes articles for Shotsmag and Crimespree Magazine. She is the Chair for the CWA Short Story Dagger, a judge for the Ngaio Marsh Award (New Zealand crime writers award), the HWA (Historical Writers Association) debut novel and CrimeFest’s Flashbang short stories. She is co-editor of the anthology Bodies in the Bookshop. She is also a dissertation tutor for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University. When not doing all of the above she works at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom where she is the Head of Judicial Support and PA to two of the Justices, one of them being the President of the Supreme Court.
As an introduction, which awards have you been involved in judging?
I have been involved in judging the Crime Writers Association Short Story Dagger, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, Flashbang Contest and the Historical Writers Association Debut Novel.
Can you describe the practical process for judging and does it vary greatly between awards?
It varies, for the CWA Short Story Dagger (which I still Judge and actually Chair) anthologies are submitted and received. The judges read all the eligible stories and a long list is drawn up followed by a shortlist. The winner is then decided from the shortlist. With regard to the Ngaio Marsh Awards books are submitted and the judges submit their views on the books in order of preference. The convener then does his magic and calculates the marks from those received and works out who the winner is. The Flashbang Contest we have to read all the submission and submit our list of all the stories marking them from our favourite to our least favourite. This is done across a number of rounds as the stories are whittled down. For the Historical Writers Debut Novel we actually used a spreadsheet to record our views. The administrator then whittled the stories down and then a meeting is held to decide the winner.
How do you go about ‘rating’ one book or story against another, or is this not the way it’s done?
With difficulty. For me it is all about a matter of taste and which stories you are drawn to and stand out. Good writing, good storyline and in addition for me how long does the book/ story resonate with me.
Does the judging (and reading) process take place over a limited time and does that pose any particular problems?
Normally a year. But for a number of the contests it has been shorter. It can pose particular problems when the judging for the different stories overlap with one another. In addition I juggle my judging with a full time busy day job and running a blog.
What happens if the process reaches a stalemate, how is that resolved?
Err, I have only been in that position once and we ended up sharing the award.
Have you been involved in ‘blind’ judging and how do you feel that works?
The Flashbang contest is done by blind judging and it works incredibly well. I like not knowing the author as it does not give you any pre-conceived ideas about the author’s writing especially if you are used to reading the author’s work.
Do you notice similar themes or trends in submissions each year?
No, but then again I think it is because of the type of books that I judge.
What really makes a submission stand out for you?
Good writing especially economical writing, (I hate long winded writing) good characters and a plot that makes you think and a
What do you enjoy about being a judge?
The variety of the stories that one gets to read.
What have you learnt from the process?
It is hard work being a judge. It requires dedication, an open mind and a willingness to read a wide variety of stories. I have also learnt that my reading has changed depending on whether I am reading a book because I am judging it or reading for pleasure. I am much more critical when judging than when reading for pleasure.
And now the’s time for your pitch – is there any award that you would like to be asked to judge?
I would love to judge the CWA Historical Dagger or the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. The Historical Dagger having the edge.
What are you reading at the moment?
Grandville – Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot. This is a cross-genre steampunk/ detective graphic novel where all the characters are animals.
You can find Ayo on twitter under the name @Shotsblog.
I’d like to thank Ayo for taking the time to answer my questions.