Hey, Let’s Talk Awards For a Bit: A Handy Guide For Dealing With Them
So, in my time as a fiction writer, I’ve been nominated and/or was a finalist for a fair number of awards, and in some cases I’ve even won them. And in the course of more than a dozen years of being nominated/becoming a finalist/occasionally winning, I’ve learned some things about the process, which I would like to share with you today.
This is not an exhaustive list of things I’ve learned, merely a selection of pertinent points that I think would be useful to others. Some of these are (or should be) obvious; others less so. Ready? Here we go.
First, general thoughts about awards.
1. Awards are nice but not necessary for a career. Meaning that you can have a long, happy and maybe even profitable career writing (or acting, or playing music, or whatever, although for the purposes of this essay I’m focusing on my own creative field, which is writing) without once winning, or even being a finalist for, a single award. I can, off the top of my head, list at least a dozen hugely successful science fiction/fantasy writers who have never been near a Hugo or Nebula short list, and yet they are creating interesting and delightful work, selling that work and building fervent, devoted audiences.
This isn’t to say awards are entirely meaningless: They can make a difference (and I will give a personal example of this presently). But there are other ways to build a thriving career. And to paraphrase a saying, a happy audience will get you through times of no awards rather better than awards will get you through times of no audience.
2. Some of the most important works in a genre or field come nowhere near an award. Here’s a question for you: What major awards, genre or otherwise, did The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy win when it arrived in 1979? The Hugo? The Nebula? The Locus? Nope, nope, nopeity nope. According to the Science Fiction Awards Database, the only award of any note that Hitchhiker won was the Australian Ditmar Award, for Best International Fiction (It was nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo for its radio play version, but did not win). And yet Hitchhiker was hugely successful, selling millions of copies, spawning multiple sequels (none of which had much award luck either), being adapted into multiple media, and fundamentally remapping what humor was in the genre of science fiction.
The three novels which comprise The Lord of Rings were eligible for the Hugo (which was getting its start in the early 50s) but were never nominated, and at the time the series garnered only the now-extinct International Fantasy Award (it won the very last one, in point of fact), of which I had never heard, prior to looking it up. Tolkien’s major award recognition would have to wait until the 70s and The Silmarillion. But no one (or at least no one who is not foolish) would suggest anything other than that The Lord of the Rings is foundational to the modern genre of fantasy, for all the good and bad that represents.
The point is that awards are nifty and fun, and also, they are no better at guessing what is enduring and influential in a genre than any other method. Sometimes the awards get it right — William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which put cyberpunk on the map, won the Hugo and Nebula in its year, and its echoes are still reverberating through common culture — but sometimes they don’t.
3. Award winners sometimes win for reasons other than being “the best.” For example, the Hugos have a “ranked choice/instant runoff” voting process, which means sometimes a work that was not the majority (or even plurality) choice can win the award as other works are eliminated and their votes reapportioned. Sometimes juried awards settle on a compromise candidate when the votes aren’t there for the works the jurists feel the most passionate about. Sometimes people award their vote not because the particular work stands head and shoulders above the other finalists but because the voter thinks it’s good enough and also it’s the author’s “time” (conversely, sometimes a voter would rather run their arms over a cheese grater than vote for a specific author, regardless of the quality of the work in question).
None of this means a winner isn’t worthy of winning; one makes the assumption that, barring direct and obvious gaming of the actual nominating process, all the finalists are of a certain, reasonable competence and quality. It does mean that lots of factors go into the process of selecting a winner, not all of them straightforward.
But that’s all right, because here’s a real thing:
4. Winning an award is not always as important as being a finalist. I can speak to this personally: In terms of my career, it was far more important for me to have been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo award in 2006, than it was for me to win it in 2013. Why? Because in 2006 I was new to the field, and having my first novel nominated was a thing, especially when coupled with the nomination for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I was the first person in more than twenty years to get nominated for the Campbell and Best Novel in the same year, and it changed my status in the field from “who is John Scalzi” to “oh, that’s John Scalzi.”
I didn’t win the Hugo that year (nor should I have: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson won, and deservedly so), but it didn’t matter because the boost put me in a different career orbit. When I did win the Best Novel award, several years later, it was great, and I loved it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience. But careerwise, it wasn’t a transforming event. It was a confirming event. My professional career didn’t change all that much after I won. Whereas being nominated earlier was transforming, and ultimately more important to my career.
The takeaway from points one through four is simply this: Awards! They’re neat and fun! Enjoy them! But they’re not everything, and winning them isn’t always as important as you might think.
With that in mind, if you are nominated, or become a finalist for, an award, here are some things for you to consider:
5. Enjoy the hell out of the ride. Enjoy the congratulations, the happiness others have for you, and the moment in the spotlight. If someone tells you to dial it back, you have my permission to ignore them, because this is a personal and professional highlight, and you deserve to dance around like an over-caffeinated monkey (literally and figuratively) if such is your joy. Let them be all muted and circumspect when/if it’s their turn to be nominated for something in the future. You do it your way.
The flip side of this is, with the happiness comes the anxiety of “Oh God, what if I win? What if I don’t win? What if people don’t think I deserve it? What if I don’t deserve it? Now do I have to get nominated every year or I’ve tumbled into the abyss of failure?” So, quickly:
- If you win, great! Enjoy it.
- If you don’t win, that’s fine, too.
- You totally deserve it.
- The people who think you don’t deserve it: Meh, their opinion, not one you have to worry about.
- You don’t have to get nominated every single year from now on. And you won’t!
The point is: This is a moment. It’s for you to enjoy. Enjoy the moment! Don’t worry about what happens after the moment, if you don’t want to. Give yourself permission to be happy.
6. The other finalists aren’t your competition, they’re your peers. I mean, yes, they are your competition, in that only one of you is likely to take home the award (sometimes there’s a tie. Don’t count on it). Buuuut, look back at point three up there. It’s a real thing. Again, whatever wins deserves to win — and that’s because any of the finalists probably deserves to win. All of the finalists have produced work that is award-caliber, and that includes you. You can be justifiably proud of that, and you can look at the field of finalists and be content that you deserve to be in their company (and equally importantly, they in yours).
I’ve been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo five times and the years I lost my “peer group” included Robert Charles Wilson, George RR Martin, Ann Leckie, NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, Yoon Ha Lee, Cory Doctorow, Mur Lafferty, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Robert J. Sawyer, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Chabon. The year I won, my peer group included Seanan McGuire, Saladin Ahmed and Lois McMaster Bujold. I mean, are you kidding me with this? I get to put my work in the same field as the work of any of these writers? How can you not pinch yourself and consider yourself lucky?
All of us got to have that moment where we were placed in each other’s company, and each of us can be proud of the association. Some of these people were friends before we were finalists together. Some of them became friends afterward. Someone goes home with the award but everyone in the field gets to have this moment of fellowship and perhaps even friendship. Guess which lasts longer and feels better. Be happy with your new peer group.
7. Practice your zen. With every award, there will be people who will proclaim loudly that there’s something wrong with who is a finalist, who won, and come up with all manner of reasons why things happened the way they did, some nefarious, and some just petty and dickish. Sometimes the focus of their ire might be you.
Remember that some people are always going to kvetch and complain and it’s not your job to validate their grievances or to agree with their assessment. You’re not responsible for their opinions and it’s not your fault they’re upset. That’s on them. If it’s just general whining and complaining, it’s often best to just let it go — everyone has their opinion and you don’t have to engage with them (especially because, no matter what, you’re already on the finalist slate, so you have that going for you, which is nice). This is especially the case if they’re not complaining to you directly, just venting somewhere you might happen to see it.
Beyond this, there are the occasional trolls and dickheads who will try to engage you, because they’re assholes or because they have a social/political agenda they think they’ll further by enraging you and/or making you unhappy. You can engage if you like — and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I’ve poked the more reprehensible of this species just to watch them spin in tight little circles — but usually it’s like wrestling the proverbial pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it. Also, if you don’t have straight white dude privilege (or experience of dealing with assholes on a regular basis) it can get overwhelming. So generally I suggest just blocking or muting these dudes if they decide to bring their grievances to you. You don’t owe anyone your attention, especially a troll.
Just remember it’s almost never the case that everyone in the world is going to be 100% happy with any finalist slate for anything, and that you don’t have to justify your presence on one. Your presence is its own justification.
8. Pro tip: Assume you won’t win, and be ready to be happy for the person who does. There are a few reasons for this. One, statistically speaking, you generally have a 75% to 80% chance of being correct, so it’s always a safe bet. Two, freeing yourself up from worrying means you can enjoy being a finalist for itself, without additional angst and angina. Three, it gives you an opportunity to enjoy the work and the personality of the other finalists, and to remind yourself that you’re their peers (and they’re yours). Four, if you do win, you can be happily surprised.
This does not mean that you should assume you won’t win because your work isn’t good enough — don’t be the person who runs themself or their work down in order to shield themself from a disappointment. Your work is good enough (otherwise you and it wouldn’t be a finalist) and you can be assured that’s not an issue. Again, see point three above. The point here is not to psyche yourself out of wanting to win. Want to win! It’s allowed. The point is to give yourself permission to be happy with how far you come even if you don’t win.
As for being happy for the person who wins when it is not you, well, why not? It does you no harm, and it means that in the future if you should win an award, you will likely have one more person happy for you. Can you be a little sad you didn’t win? Sure! Everyone wants to win, and you don’t have to pretend that you don’t. Be a little sad! But you can do that and still be happy for someone else.
(Also, sometimes it’s actually easy to be happy for someone else. The last Hugo I lost was to NK Jemisin, who capped off a remarkable three-peat Best Novel win at the Hugos. Her winning, aside from being richly deserved in itself, represented an appropriately seismic recalibration of where the center of our shared genre now resides. It’s hard to be churlish about not winning when you get a front row seat to literary history. As I’ve said before and will probably say again, I’ve never been happier to have come in second.)
9. If you do win, share the love. Thank your editor. Thank your agent. Thank your cover designer, and copy editor, and everyone else you can think of. Thank your partner. Thank your kid. Thank your dog. Have good, kind and true words for your fellow finalists. I’m not going to say be humble — I mean, you just won an award, that’s pretty great — but be mindful of the people who helped you to that award, and the peers whose work your work stood with to get there.
Also speaking as someone who knows: It helps to write something out beforehand. Really, do that.
10. Win or lose: Get back to work. When I won my Best Novel Hugo, I allowed myself a whole week to enjoy the fact — and then, I had to get back to what I was doing, which was, writing the next thing. When I lost my last Hugo, I also gave myself a week (mostly because I was traveling to another convention and it’s hard for me to focus on the road), and then got back to what I was doing, which was writing the next thing.
Win or lose, awards are a moment, and the moment ends, one way or another. On to the next thing. Always, on to the next thing.