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.

Commensurately:

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.

Also:

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.

35 thoughts on “Hey, Let’s Talk Awards For a Bit: A Handy Guide For Dealing With Them

  1. Quick notes:

    1. I talk about the Hugos here a bit, mostly because that’s the award I’ve been nominated for/won the most, and because they’re the premier award in SF/F (along with the Nebulas). So of course this will bring up the issue of the Sad Puppy run at the Hugos, in which (for the three of my regulars who do not keep up with this) a group of politically-motivated folks advanced a slate of nominees for their own purposes. This attempt was thoroughly rebuffed by Hugo voters, and the ground rules for nominating for the award changed to make slating more difficult.

    For the purposes of this piece, I’m treating the Sad Puppy campaign as an outlier in terms of behavior and result, because it was. This piece assumes nominations are generally made in good faith by the nominating voters and proceeds from there. Obviously when people fiddle with nominations for political reasons, things get funky.

    2. Acknowledging this is not an invitation to re-litigate that whole Sad Puppy mess. It’s over, it’s done, move on. Also, just as a general note, if anyone pops up to whine about that, or how SF genre awards are now the domain of the SJW or whatever, I’m just going to expunge that nonsense from the thread without acknowledgement of it. Grow up. This comment thread is not about that. It’s about the general issue of awards, and being nominated/being a finalist for them.

    3. I should be the first to note that this piece is coming from someone who has won enough awards that he can feel sanguine about them. Nevertheless, even when I hadn’t won any, this was pretty much how I dealt with them — or tried to, anyway. I could get as neurotic about them as the next creative person.

  2. Very wise words. At the moment, I am enjoying being nominated for best translated YA book. Probably won’t win, but I am happy to be nominated. The book was great to work on and I am happy for the author’s success! (As with all translation awards, the glory goes to the author, not to the translator — translation is in and of itself a very humbling occupation).

  3. Laura W:

    One of the things that the Hugo has done wisely recently is to give a Hugo to translators as well as the writer when a work translated from another language wins the award. It recognizes that translation is a skill as well.

    On my own, whenever I win an award in another language, I always ask to share the award with the translator, on the thinking that without their work, I wouldn’t have won the award at all.

  4. I love this. I aspire to need these words as an author one day, but even if that doesn’t pan out, I think they’re sentiments to live by in any case: enjoy successes but don’t expect everything always to go your way, and be generous with others.

  5. A minor quibble concerning list item 2: The first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had already been broadcast in the UK and become popular (so much so that LP versions were produced) more than a year before Adams’ novel was published. It’s not as though the novel spawned everything else. Indeed, many novels might have benefited from a popular radio series version having been produced first.

  6. 2. The Hitchhikers book of 1979 was the novelisation of the 1978 radio series. The radio version was nominated for the “Best Dramatic Presentation” Hugo in 1979, it lost to “Superman”.

    9. You don’t thank the cats? Deary me…..

  7. You didn’t say thank your cats. You Didnt Say Thank Your Cats.
    YOU DIDN’T SAY THANK YOUR CATS!

    Oh you are going to pay for that, John Scalzi. They are warming up their vocal chords and getting ready to sing the song the songs of their people along with their percussion prowess of knocking s*** to the floor because it sparks joy for them.

    You are in for it.

  8. Jada:

    If you’re talking about the Dragon Awards, they haven’t had much luck with them either, after the first couple of years.

    That said, again, let’s not reiterate the Puppy nonsense here, please.

  9. Minor claim to fame: One of the first bookings I can remember doing as a freshly minted Video Tape Engineer at the BBC was sitting in front of an Ampex VR2000 in TX1, recording the transfer from film to tape of the book animations for the TV version of HHGTTG.

  10. The Puppy thing was definitely an outlier, but now all of Chuck Tingle’s books say “By Two-Time Hugo Nominated Author Chuck Tingle”, and I love that more than I can say. I follow him, he’s fascinating. I’ve never actually read one of his “tinglers”, but I think I will someday just to experience it.

  11. Anthony: Very cool. Loved the original TV series!

    As for the awards, I do remember way back in 2006 when John was awarded the Campbell Award, one of the runner ups was Brandon Sanderson. Someone did make him a lego rocket dudbed the Scalzi Award. I asked Brandon about that a couple of years ago, and he said it is still proudly displayed on his mantle. I think he may have done fairly well despite not winning the Campbell that year.

  12. And, a follow up note. Google “Brandon Sanderson Scalzi Award” to see how John and Brandon handled things back then in various blog posts. Both were and are still class acts.

  13. The past couple of years I have purchased a membership and voted in the Hugo’s. My overall impressions are 1) The field is really big and more diverse than I had realized. The quantity of material was overwhelming – I only managed to vote in about half the categories. 2) I think the only winner I ranked 1st was the series award for one year. My reaction to the winners was always that they were a solid choice and I could see how the other voters thought they were the best.

  14. @williambradleynewwestnotes:
    > Why does the Hugo Award look like Elon Musk’s new BF Rocket design?

    One might better ask “Why does the Hugo Award look like a V-2 rocket?” For some reason, the V2 is the image of the classic early SciFi rocket, I have no idea why.

  15. Having been up for an award or two (theatre for the most part), it was 4, 5 and 6 for me. Tremendously uplifting to be recognized. Had a hell of a time being there. And just enjoyed seeing a peer win.

    And, oddly enough, this sort of attitude spread out to other years when I didn’t win or even have anything in competition…

  16. Having now been up for the Hugo twice for Fanzine, and having had the opportunity to attend Worldcon last year (the reception, ceremony, and party were a LOT of fun!), so much of what you said makes sense.

    Of course we wanted to win, but being a finalist *really* was an honor and with no promise of ever getting back (tastes change, fashion changes) – just getting there once (twice!) is absolutely amazing and something that can’t be taken away. And like you mentioned, sooooo many wonderful writers in all categories never get to sniff a final ballot and that doesn’t at all mean that their work is less. It just means that we are super fortunate to have made the ballot and yeah, enjoy the ride.

    I think I’m just reiterating here, so I’ll just nod along now.

  17. The Dragon Awards might have been intended for a specific political purpose, but it’s pretty obvious that the general voters were having none of that nonsense and they’ve quickly become just another set of awards. They might go to slightly more commercial works than the Hugo or Nebula awards, but they’ve all been deserving works. I kind of hope they stick around as a third major US centric SF award because they’ve been just different enough to add to the number of works getting recognition without really diluting the field.

  18. The odds of me being nominated for any kind of writing award are slim unless my series actually does get adapted for streaming, but it’s always nice to see how a functioning adult deals with (and recommends dealing with) such things. :-) Till that frabjous day, I shall just continue with my current mantra, ‘the work is its own reward.’

  19. I think the V2 is the iconic science-fiction rocket because it was the first real missile most people saw pictures of, and because captured V2s (and Paperclipped Nazi engineers) were used in so many early sounding-rocket experiments in the US just after the war. And that period was the Golden Age of US science fiction, when the American print genre really became what it would be.

  20. In spite of writing some of the best fiction in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Terry Pratchett didn’t even get shortlisted for the Hugo until 2005; and he recused himself so it wouldn’t mess up his enjoyment of Worldcon. In a perfect universe, he would have been obliged to recuse himself every year from about 1990 onwards. Instead, he’s the fantasy writer most likely to show up on reading lists decades from now.

    He did get a Carnegie medal and a knighthood, not to mention countless honorary degrees and a pile of other awards, as well as the pile of “mattresses stuffed with £20 notes” he mentioned to J K Rowling.

  21. I would be curious to see a list of current best-selling SF authors who have not won or not been nominated for a Hugo.

  22. C Oppenheimer:

    To begin:

    David Webber has been on the NYT list twice since October and has never been nominated for a Hugo.

    Pat Rothfuss has never been nominated for a Hugo.

    Peter V. Brett has never been nominated for a Hugo.

    Suzanne Collins has never been nominated for a Hugo.

    etc.

    Again, this is not a difficult task.

  23. @C Oppenheimer: I don’t even think the Hugos correlate particularly well with mainstream success. They offer a boost in visibility and probably some critical attention, but that’s about it. They also tend to be a bit niche and insular; certain names appear on the shortlists again and again, and those names usually aren’t massive bestsellers. (I mean, I’m sure NK Jemisin does well for herself, but she’s not an international phenomenon like, say, GRRM or Neil Gaiman.)

    Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: it’s merely to say that Worldcon is just one part of SF fandom, and not even necessarily a representative part. If your aim is to simply make a ton of money (which is probably not the best goal when embarking on a career as a fiction writer, but let’s set that aside), I wouldn’t think you should worry yourself too much about the Hugos, or any other distinction outside of the Pulitzer or an Oprah’s Book Club pick. (Does she still do that?)

  24. David Webber made a post on his facebook page a few months ago saying he has been on the New York Times bestseller list 20+ times. There is a con dedicated to just one of his two bestselling SF Series.

  25. Aaron:

    “(I mean, I’m sure NK Jemisin does well for herself, but she’s not an international phenomenon like, say, GRRM or Neil Gaiman.)”

    1. Yet.

    2. Jemisin’s sold in excess of a million copies domestically (according to her publisher, which took out a big ad about it), which is not chicken scratch. And the third book in her series hit the NYT bestseller list prior to winning the Hugo.

    3. Not counting Jemisin, of the Best Novel winners since 2008, Chabon, Gaiman, Leckie, Bacigalupi and Scalzi (waves) are NYT Bestsellers, Mieville is a bestseller in the UK (and recently had his Hugo winner adapted to television), and Liu is the GRRM/Gaiman of China, in terms of sales and notability. So there’s at least some correlation between Hugos and “mainstream” success. Causation? Nah. But correlation, sure.

  26. On Hugos and awards, I can’t help but remember what David Gerrold wrote about his experience with being nominated for his most famous work:

    “I lost. And a good thing, too. Or else I would have been insufferable for weeks afterwards. (Losing didn’t teach me humility, but it did teach me that didn’t have any. I lost badly.)”

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