It’s awards season. It comes around every year, and every year authors wonder whether they should put their work out for consideration.
This can be a scary thing. Making a bid for an award can feel a bit like facing a hoard of angry dogs with only a single hardback volume to defend you from their slathering teeth. Oh, and it’s a book you’ve written, and it’s your only copy.
By the time they’ve got a story or two on the market, most authors already know the basic principles of self-promotion. I’m not going to talk about sharing copies of the story with awards readers, except to say that it’s completely ethical and standard practice within speculative fiction. I’m not going to talk about blogging or tweeting about your own work, except to say keep it short and keep it interesting. And I’m not going to talk about the icky feeling that sometimes comes from campaigning for award nominations, except to say that it is largely illusory.
Instead, after watching this industry chug for 10+ years and sitting on both sides of the nomination table, I’m going to talk about a couple of things that every up-and-coming author ought to know.
(1) No amount of dogs and ponies will convince people to vote against their conscience.*
Said another way: Self-promotion can get people to read your story, but it can’t make them like it.
I didn’t always believe this. Long ago, when my earliest stories were in print, I took great pains to prevent any kind of favoritism. Once, I submitted under a pseudonym because I feared the magazine’s staff might be unfairly partial to my submission. (They bought the story anyway and we all laughed about it afterward).
What I learned (primarily during several subsequent years on the editorial staff for a top-paying magazine) is that no amount of positive predisposition will make me like a mediocre story. I used get subs from people I adored in real life, people I so badly wanted to see succeed, or perhaps people who’d written stories that I slathered over in the past. I’d read the first line with eager anticipation, and I could almost see the little red enthusiasm bar in my head sliding downward, with accompanying sound effects. No amount of wishful thinking was ever able to change that.
I’ve observed editors and fans closely over the years. By and large, across all of speculative fiction, readers do not like stories any better just because they have positive feelings toward the author. Remember how angry you were the last time one of your favorite authors wrote a dud? Yeah. It’s like that.
This is not to say that nominations cannot be gamed. There are plenty of unconscionable people in this world, and unconscionable people do all kinds of things. There is also the question of whether it’s fair to leverage a large audience from a different venue to get yourself on an awards ballot. Fair questions, all. But know this: if you put your story in front of a sincere, conscionable subset of the industry, and that story is subsequently nominated for an award, you may rest assured that the nomination happened because the story was truly awesome and not because you exerted some kind of undue manipulation.
Correspondingly, there is no point in making a big fuss over a story that does not have the chops to go the distance. See point 2.
(2) You are allowed to have a favorite child.
All stories are not created equal. And as much as we may wish to believe otherwise, a story’s emotional impact on the reader is not necessarily correlated with the amount of time or level of soul-wringing required of its author. Some stories are heartrendingly magnificent. Others… aren’t. And yes, this is true for pretty much everyone.
When asked to present a story for awards consideration, new authors often fall into a sort of catastrophic feedback loop. “My beautiful babies! How can I favor any of them over the others?”
Relax. Breathe. It’s possible.
The story you place before an awards audience, your “one best work” as we tend to call it, doesn’t have to be the one you are most emotionally attached to (although often it will be). It doesn’t have to be the one for which you received the most money. It doesn’t have to be the one your mother likes best.
Dramatic pause. Wait for it…
It should be the one with the largest chance of success.**
How do you know which story is likely to succeed? There’s no guaranteed formula, but generally speaking, you watch your audience for feedback. If your story is consistently singled out as the best of an anthology or magazine issue, that’s a hint. If you cried while writing it, that’s a hint. If total strangers track you down to say how much it affected them, that’s a REALLY BIG hint.
Track your audience. Notice which stories they’re responding to, even if they’re not the stories you personally like best. Choose your award candidate from one of those.
Before we move to the next point, there’s one more thing that ought to be said. Some authors don’t feel very confident about their stories, and are consequently hesitant to sacrifice their precious soul-child on the altar of awards consideration. If this is you, I would like to draw attention to two truths: First, you do not have to throw your hat in the ring unless you want to. Careers have been forged and have flourished just fine without it. Second, if you do want to throw the hat, nothing and no one is authorized to bar you entrance. It does not matter how small or obscure the original publication market, as long as it meets the requirements for eligibility.
(3) Momentum matters
Most people think the battle for reader attention begins after award nominations have been made, or at least after the top contenders have been established. Unfortunately, this isn’t strictly true.
The first, most difficult, and arguably most important hurdle is getting awards nominators to read your story when they haven’t heard anything good about it yet.
I’ve read for awards nominations. My kindle had hundreds of thousands of words of fiction waiting for perusal, and those were just the ones that had been actively sent to me by hopeful authors. It’s a daunting task, and in the end I had to confess that there was no way I could read every possible eligible story and still maintain any semblance of a normal work-and-social schedule or, for that matter, more than the barest shred of sanity. I eventually settled for reading the fiction I’d been directly given and reading the fiction I’d heard people say nice things about. Some years life was particularly hectic, and I didn’t even make it through the list on my kindle.
Fact: Hundreds of stories didn’t have never hat a chance at my nomination for the simple reason that I never saw them.
Fact: Getting seen is an essential prerequisite for any kind of accolade.
Sometimes the work of visibility is done for you. Sometimes your story appears in a high-profile publication with broad readership and a strong online presence. Sometimes your story comes out early in the year, and there’s a lot of time for online reviewers to praise its excellence. Sometimes, though, your story comes out in the last week of December in a small print market that no one’s ever heard about. That doesn’t make a brilliant story any less brilliant, but it does mean you’re working at a disadvantage on the visibility front. You should know that going in.
DO believe in your story. If you do not believe in it, no one else will have a chance to. Once you’ve done the most important work – placing it in front of readers — the situation is largely out of your hands. Remember, no amount of handsprings or flag-waving will get people to like a story they would otherwise be indifferent toward.
One more thing. When allocating time and resources to an awards campaign – and yes, it’s a campaign even if the full extent of your activities consists of mailing copies of the story to a few friends – keep your emotional and logistical limits in mind. It is possible to spend literally thousands of hours inventing ways to increase your story’s visibility. That doesn’t mean it’s good. For your own sanity, draw a line in the sand and don’t let yourself step past it.
(4) The Path Not Taken
Get comfortable with this idea right now. If you decide to go all-out, if you put your heart and soul on the line for three months making sure as many people as possible know about your novel (or novella, or novelette, or short story), and it leads to the desired nomination: You will never know whether all of that time and effort made any difference. You will never know whether the story could have made it on its own.
Conversely: If you don’t put in the effort – if you don’t give your story a chance to be seen by the widest audience feasibly possible – and the story fails to make the ballot… you will never know whether it could have succeeded with just a little extra help.
You do not get to walk both roads. You don’t even get to peek around the corner and see where the other one might have led. No matter which road you choose, you will find yourself at the end of it holding a big red question mark that will never transform into anything else.
There’s no right road for everybody. The road you choose will depend a great deal on your own personality and priorities, and the only wisdom I can offer is this: If you’re going to get saddled with a question mark either way, you might as well pick the one that bothers you least.
(5) Be ready for a lot of attention
That doesn’t mean you should necessarily expect it. There are a lot of stories out there, and relatively few nomination slots. But when you place your story before awards readers, you are making a bid for public attention. You are asking people to look at it, and desperately hoping they’ll like it.
And sometimes they do.
They will like it so much that they tell their friends, and the friends tell their friends… and some of the friends’ friends think it’s the worst piece of drivel they’ve ever read. Nasty reviews will pop up alongside all those glowing, ego-stoking ones. People will feel entitled to discuss your story – and your intentions as an author – in ways they wouldn’t have bothered with if you weren’t a serious contender for a major award. Your blog and social networks will swell, acquiring followers who don’t feel a personal connection to you and who may take offense at things you say. They are watching you because you are Someone Important, not because they consider you a friend.
It can be a bit overwhelming. I stopped blogging for more than a year after Movement hit the Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA nomination lists. Oh, I posted the occasional publication announcement or trivial tidbit, but never anything significant. Never anything that might draw the attention of the naysayers. I still don’t – not as often, anyway. Not the way I did when I was a cheerful nobody surrounded by her closest friends.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a nominee is a heady experience. It’s thrilling and glamorous and full of breathless excitement, or at least it was for me. I don’t regret it, and I wouldn’t undo it. But it comes with baggage, and it’s only fair to mention that from the start.
Also of importance: If magical lightning strikes, and you find yourself the center of glittering adoration, be aware that it does not last forever. Eventually the furor and excitement will fade, life will move on, and readers will start looking for the next batch of nominees. It’s not unusual to feel depressed during this phase. Everything was going so well. What happened to all the attention? Why isn’t your name showing up on google every day?
I’ve spoken with several authors about this, and I have it on good authority: it’s not unusual to experience a creative draught immediately after an award nomination. You have a reputation now. People expect great things of you, and it can be crippling to sit at the keyboard and feel that the story you’re working on this instant must absolutely and undeniably surpass in quality everything you’ve ever written in the past.
Don’t be surprised if this happens to you. Don’t feel alone, and don’t despair. The creative fires usually come back, and when you start in on the next project you’ll be able to leverage the wealth of experience and industry connections you accumulated during your moment in the sun. The future becomes an expanding horizon, full of opportunity, held aloft by wonderful people.
* * *
That’s it. The length and breadth of my observations regarding awards season. Go forth, mighty authors! Have fun, build bridges, and try to be happy for the other guy when he ends up on the ballot instead of you. It’s a big boat, and there are a lot of us sitting in it, and it’s on its way to magnificent places!
Don’t forget to paddle.
*Large sums of money might work better in this regard. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried it. Not a recommended option.
**Unless, of course, you have ulterior motives beyond GET ON THE NOMINATION BALLOT AT ALL COSTS. You’re allowed to have those. They’re just outside the scope of this blog post.