On The Subject Of Awards

I’ve wanted to be a writer since —

*checks watch*

— since I karate kicked my way out of the dragon cloaca that birthed me. I’m pretty sure I come from a dragon? That’s what my mother told me. MY MOTHER, WHO IS A DRAGON. (Actually, for real, if you see my mother’s feet? You might be inclined to agree. I’m pretty sure that she could scalp a man by gripping it with her foot and just twisting.)

I had a momentary desire to be a cartoonist, but for the most part, it was writer, writer, writer.

Which means I started writing very early. I’m still one of those dips who keeps the “books” he published when he was in elementary school. (The earliest I have is a story about who go to the core of the earth to save it. A story that later became the Delroy Lindo filmic masterpiece, The Core. Okay, maybe not. But seriously, it was kinda the same plot.) I had a piece of software for my Tandy 1000 SX called Print Master (or was it Print Shop?) and I’d make book covers and typeset my own books and they were terrible, though probably no more terrible than some of what you find on Amazon Kindle these days (ba-dum-bum). I continued this habit of writing lots and lots of things through elementary school, high school, and college.

My first published short story was when I was 18. I published — professionally, though for very little actual money — a few times throughout college.

Thing is, all throughout this journey, I encountered awards. They offer writing awards throughout the various school-based strata, and when I say I “encountered” them, I mean to suggest I got close enough to smell them, but never near enough to hold onto one. I met these awards on the road, like you might meet a hobo or a vampire. Purely in passing.

Other people always won the awards.

And for a long time, that bothered me. I was young and I thought, awards are validation. Doubly important at that time because I was struggling to convince my family and the rest of the real world that writing was in fact A Real Thing, not just some artsy-poopsy dalliance. I figured, whoa, hey, if I can win an award, that will be irrefutable proof that I’m supposed to do what I’m supposed to do. It’ll prove it to me and it’ll prove it to everyone else.

I didn’t win any.

I sometimes won runner-up.

The winners were always very literary — sometimes amazing work, sometimes confounding and pretentious. The winners were never genre-based. You didn’t see any fantasy, horror, or sci-fi winning — and those were the things I wrote. I even tried to write a few literary-style stories at one point. Which was a good exercise, in that it let me stretch my muscles and extend my voice and also decide very plainly that, no, I don’t want to write purely literary work.

One of the stories I wrote won runner-up in a college writing award.

Ironically, that after I’d already been published. Published for real. And yet, the publication felt somehow less important than winning the award — validation from peers and academics rather than from the market.

That was, and remains, poopy-cuckoo shitty-pants shenanigans.

Awards are not validation. Awards don’t mean something is good or that other things are bad. Awards are accolades and kudos pinned to the sleeves and lapels of art, but their margins are very narrow, the window is very small. That’s not a failing, it’s not a bug — by their nature you can’t take a MASSIVE BULK of art and give out awards to all of them. You have to winnow. You have to whittle. Sometimes that winnowing and whittling feels right. Sometimes it’s driven by social trends, crowd interest, sales, politics, visibility. Sometimes it’s the result of toxic trends, sometimes it’s the result of overturning those toxic trends. Sometimes its great art that wins awards. Sometimes it’s not. (I will remind you that Forrest Gump is an Oscar-winning picture. THAT’S RIGHT, I JUST BURNED YOU, TOM HANKS. I GOT YOU GOOD.)

I say all this because right now, it’s coming up on awards season. That’s true in TV and film, and it’s also true in books — you’re starting to see a lot of chatter about Stokers, Edgars, Hugos, Nebulas. (That will be the protagonist of my next novel: STOKER EDGAR HUGO NEBULA, THE THIRD. An astronaut dragon-riding detective! It’ll win awards!) The chatter rises, and in that chatter I get a sense of award-oriented anxiety — who will win, who should, will I be nominated, I’ll never be nominated, and so on and so forth.

You need to understand, though:

Awards are not infallible.

The best book will not always win an award.

The best book sometimes won’t ever even be nominated.

Sometimes, it will be nominated, and it will win, and you’ll cheer — at the same time someone else boos that very same decision. The book you love isn’t a book everyone loves. And vice versa.

Awards are subjective, strange, and imperfect.

They’re not the whole elephant; they’re just a blood sample.

And at the same time: awards are awesome. The people who win them? Awesome for them. And deserved. Those who are nominated but lose? Awesome for them, too. And also deserved. Those who are never nominated? Hey, fuck it — awesome for you, because you’re out there writing books and reaching an audience and doing what you fucking love to do. You didn’t win an award? Most people didn’t. A hundred other amazing authors and books and pieces of art failed to win awards. Most failed to even score nominations. You’re in good company.

Awards generate interest, conversation, controversy — they’re bubbles in the boiling pot of water. Not always relevant to your world, not always ideal, but it keeps the whole thing cooking.

So, we should celebrate awards and those who win them.

And, at the same time, we should be able to celebrate not winning them. Because awards? Not the end all be all. They’re one part — an admittedly small part — of the total equation. My advice? Relax. Write the stories you want to write. Try to reach an audience, not an award. Awards are too weird, too unpredictable. You win one? Victory lap. You don’t? Then you still get your victory lap.

Just remember that an award doesn’t validate you.

You were valid when you got here. You already have the cake — an award is just icing.


  • When they ask me what I am doing running around in circles outside, without pants, I will tell them that I am a writer and I am doing my victory lap. Although they may hear WRIERRUNNINVICTRYLAP because it’s cold and bourbon may have been preceded the running.

  • I run a gamut of conflicting emotions when I think about awards—and the likelihood that I’ll never be eligible for most because of the fact I’m a solid genre-bender. Or maybe because I don’t have the right foot in the right door? Or maybe it’s the organizations I’m not part of.. Or… Or…!

    And then I remember the realization I came to during the awful horror show that my 2014 was: I found myself in that space where I was craving validation. ALL the validation. And awards (so it is assumed) equals validation. CONGRATULATIONS, they seem to say, YOU ARE ARRIVED AND YOU ARE HERE AND YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR TOWEL IS AT.

    Winning the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award was an amazing, emotional thing. I was so happy that even when some dinks suggested (feebly) that RT awards weren’t “real” awards, it couldn’t dent my bubble. Because like you, Chuck, I didn’t win things. Ever. I think I won a raffle basket ONCE in my life, and I was like, “Are you sure? I need to give this back, right?” So I won this pretty glass thing etched with my name on it and it’s on my shelf and I think, “I’m here. I’ve always been here, and my towel is right there, and even Arthur Dent had a shit go of it sometimes but he had his towel, so I’m doing okay.”

    Anyway, I guess my point here is…I found myself putting a LOT of self-worth on my (in)ability to win awards. Hugos, Stokers, Campbells. The Big Ones(tm). And I finally simmered down to where you’re at on this blog post. If I ever do win another, if I ever get nommed, I will be super, super happy because hey! People liked me enough to do so. But if I don’t? It doesn’t mean I’m not a good writer. My validation isn’t going to come from that.

    And that’s where I’m at. I feel better.

  • Susan ‘Stoker’ Edgars and Hugo Nebula. She’s a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, bounty hunter hiding from a turbulent past. He’s an Earth-marooned alien desperately trying to fit in while keeping his alien-ess hidden from the government goons on his trail. Together, they work the plagiarism beat in Pulitzer City. This Fall on Fox!

  • Dude, you too? I wrote the same story in school. Though mine had the heroes time-travelling into the past to before the cataclysm to detonate bombs at the Earth’s core so rocks would fall into the lava and prevent a worldwide earthquake.

    I’ve got four books out, and before the year is out that number will be up to six, with an e-serial to boot. None of it will be eligible for any of the awards that would be appropriate based on my genre (spec fic) and location (Ireland’s Bord Gais Energy Book Awards) because they’re not published with (A) a large publisher known for SFF, or (B) an Irish publisher. I have to try and make peace with that.

  • Re: Just remember that an award doesn’t validate you.

    One of my stories just won recognition in an amateur writing competition. Of course I am thrilled–did the happy dance. But as you say, one story doesn’t make a career. It’s one at-bat. One song sung. One tale told well. Doesn’t make me Hank Aaron or Bob Seger or Ursula K. LeGuin. It’s a mile marker along the road. The award doesn’t make the writer, the writing does. The audience is the award.

  • I’ve pretty much given up on entering contests. Seems like I can get a nomination but I can never close the deal. Ah, well. (I was once nominated for a readers’ choice award along with Hugh Howey. I didn’t feel bad about losing that one….)

  • Winning the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Honor (2nd place) award this year, actually DID feel validating for me. Being new and mired in self doubt (not to say I won’t be mired in it when I am experienced), I was getting pretty slumpy and saggy on if I even had the stuff to write or if it was all drivel. I absolutely agree that NOT winning should also be celebrated – surely there were manuscripts that were just as good as mine. Surely there were those that were better but maybe didn’t fit what the publisher was looking for. But heck yeah – even winning 2nd place DID make my efforts feel validated. Outwardly. That inner validation is the hard one to remember, award or not. And I wrote about you on my blog post about winning – my big lesson was your motto, “Finish your shit.” http://writernity.blogspot.com/2015/01/so-this-happened-aka-squeeee.html I would keep writing, award or no award. But yep. It did help me feel validated.

  • Well said. The same kind of goes for publishing . . . Getting a book published is not exactly a marker of a good book. Just as not getting a book published is not a marker of a bad book. It seems to just come down to a choice people make when they look at your book. They like it or they don’t. And their tastes could be stellar or stupid (#dinosaurporn). Or totally based on what hesaidshesaid or a magic Eight-ball. Though . . . I totally won a Young Author’s Award in 6th grade for my HOW THE ELEPHANT CAME TO BE. Those judges knew what they were doing. I’m pretty sure.

  • I agree that any kind of writing award does not validate you as a writer. In fact, I agree with most of what you said about receiving something shiny that you can place on a wall or a mantle. For most of my life I believed that there should be no writing awards. The reward for writing is the writing. Nothing more, nothing less. If it chimes with a few people, wonderful. But just because it shimmers to a few reviewers — well, good for them. Glad they read it.

    But then, in spite of myself, I won a few awards. Then I won a few national awards.

    The first time I won on the national scale, it was a column I had whipped out in 15 minutes for a newspaper in Seattle, in a very flippant style. I had fun with it. The editor up there loved it.

    Then, surprise of surprise, it won a national sports writing award. That was me, with a big question mark over my head, when I heard I had won that award. I’d written many columns that were far more valuable, more tangible, more exquisite, with far more depth than THAT one …

    That award seemed to validate everything I had always believed about writing awards, that they don’t mean a damn thing. But I had not taken into account what followed.

    This is what I had not taken into account: Awards open doors. Suddenly, magazines began to chime my phone. Publishers asked me to write books. And it seemed I no longer had to fear being fired from the Oakland Tribune for incompetence.

    That column I whipped out so fast that I never gave it a second thought … it opened a gateway to employment. I know in my heart that it wasn’t my best. It just showed up at the right time in the right place, to the right people.

    So I do not believe that one column, written on a whim, validates me as a writer. Neither did any of the other columns or books that received recognition on the national scale. But they sure helped my wallet.

    I got lucky. That’s my take. I remain far more proud of other columns I have written in my career. I remain very happy that a few colleagues deemed a small portion of my career as noteworthy. But I would rather receive a small note from a reader commending a particular column for what it told him, that it gave him meaning. That’s validation.


  • If you win an award, set it on your mantel and admire it for a couple of days then pack that shit up. It’s the first nail in the coffin. The lure of slutting up the me-me-me love. Too easy to sit on ones laurels and reminisce. Forward soldier, as fast as the shitstorm churning from those disgruntled losers nipping at your heels. George Clooney got a lifetime achievement award? For real? What’s up with him? Is he dying? Is there something up that they’re not telling us?

  • Awards, like reading, is subjective and this subjectivity is in the hands of those judging awards. In 2011 I won the Australian Shadows Award for short fiction (kick-arse trophy, by the way — Zombie Hyde), to say that I was surprised was an understatement. This same story hadn’t made any shortlists for ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘Recommended Reads’ or any of the things a writer sometimes hopes for, yet for the three judges of this award, they loved it.

    Did I feel validated? Sure. It feels great winning an award and I love having the trophy. Has it lasted? Well… no. I still get the same bouts of writerimposteritis I did before I won the award. And sometimes that Zombie Hyde seems to mock me from its place on my desk (I’m sure it’s colluding with the mini-Cerberus and plotting my demise — I hear the whispers), so while the validation came, it wasn’t long-lived.

    So for me, awards and noms have their place, but don’t count on them as long-standing validation for your work. Keep writing, keep making good art and be happy you get to do what you love. 🙂

  • Thank you, Chuck, as always.

    When I was a wee girl I wrote books (bound with ye olde fashioned cardboard and string) and said mass (with Wonder bread cutouts for Communion wafers). I’m not a priest yet, but in my church these things take millennia. In the meantime, I write. Sometimes about religious ritual (but without the Wonder bread, so far).

    As to awards and Best Of the Year lists… http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2014/12/andrew-wk-nachos-or-tacos.php

  • Another ‘Master speaks’ eulogy. Best writers blog on the internet by far. Dare I say it ‘award worthy’?!

  • I always find this with awards that best things dont always win. Take the oscars. For me the majoprity of films that win an oscar for best picture are drivel. They are films built for social commentary without a second thought for the people who will actually go to the cinema to watch films.

    Like wise with books, whoever sees Sci Fi / fanatasy books high rolling for the booker prize etc? (maybe i just dont notice what IS nominated.)

    But the one thing i do know,, is start naming the biggest grossing films of all tiime/blockbusters and whatdoyouknow there are sci fi / fanatsy – Star Wars, Avatar, matrix.

    Its not a hard and fast rule i know, but hey the best things in life arent always theings people rave about.

  • Oh, all of this is so, so true Chuck!

    I’ll ‘fess up now… I was one of those horrible kids who won writing competitions way back when. Short story comps mostly, although I was also one of the winners in a local Young People’s Playwright Festival for two years running. One time I got massively upset when I won a short story competition because I didn’t even remember entering it, so I was terrified they’d given it to the wrong person by mistake and I was unwittingly cheating someone else out of their prize (man, I cried for nearly a WHOLE DAY about that!)

    But when I hit adulthood, did I continue to enter competitions, in an attempt to capitalise on my comp-winning rep in the world of writing? Errrmmmm….. no. Am I now a famous author by profession? Nnnnnnaaah. Have I had ANYTHING published? We-ell… yeah, a few things, but nothing anyone’s likely to have heard of. And I sure aint living off any royalties from ’em.

    In short, adulthood reset my position straight back to newbie – all them childhood awards meant sweet diddly-squat out in the Wild Wild West of Getting Published. I’m hoping it doesn’t mean I’m the writer’s equivalent of the precocious child star, who peaks in her cute years and then descends into burnout once puberty hits (the Lindsay Lohan of Writing, but minus the drugs and DUI convictions. Oooh, and the sleeping with a gazillion Hollywood hunks part, obvs. *Sigh.*)

    So there y’go – maybe you’re actually better off for NOT winning awards early on in life. You never get your blades dulled by complacency, unlike some I could mention *looks at self, which hurts eyes ’cause that’s hard to do without a mirror.*

    And yeah, I used to make my own story books too. A4 paper folded down the middle, and stapled a little bit in from the fold because my stapler wasn’t big enough to reach the middle. Handwritten, with hand-scrawled pictures, the one I remember best was a horrific mash-up of a ‘Famous-Five’-stylee mystery story and… erm, Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’ I have NO IDEA how or why I thought I could make that work..!

  • Cue Sam Smith: La La La.
    I’m not gonna lie, on my deathbed, if I don’t have a Hugo or Nebula by then it will feel like I didn’t quite measure up as a novelist.

    Or not. God, I hope not.

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