On April 29th at Stokercon in Long Beach, California, I received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction for my novella The Winter Box. For those of you unfamiliar with the awards, they’re presented annually by the Horror Writers Association at the organization’s yearly conference. Works are nominated and voted on by members, with juries in each category adding works of excellence to the ballot that may have been overlooked by the membership.During my acceptance speech, I spoke about a conversation I had with author and editor Thomas F. Monteleone at a World Fantasy Convention some years ago. We got to talking about writing awards, and Tom asked me if I’d won any yet. I assumed Tom was talking about major awards, and feeling a little embarrassed, I said no.
“That’s okay,” he said. “You will.”
His simple faith that I was capable of producing fiction that someone might find award-worthy meant the world to the young writer I was at the time. Tom continued.
“The good thing about awards is that they’re an acknowledgement from your peers that you’re doing good work.”
Tom taught me that awards aren’t about what works are “best,” nor are they about “winners” and “losers.” They’re recognition that you’re doing good work. This means that every work nominated also receives the same recognition, regardless of who carries home a statue. (Yes, it really is an honor to be nominated!) Every person who voted for your story recognized you. Even if only one person in the whole damn world recommended your story for an award that means that person recognized you’re doing good work.
The first award I remember winning wasn’t for writing. It was for art. I was in sixth grade, and the school had an art contest. The winner would get a ticket to see the high school play. (It’s very possible this was only one of the contest prizes. I don’t remember.) I decided to copy the cover from a Wizard of Oz adaptation that Marvel Comics published (which I choose to view as artistic inspiration instead of outright plagiarism). I won the ticket, and I got to see a play called The Ghoul Friend. There were lots of cool monster costumes, but in the end it basically turned out to be a Scooby Doo Mystery (sorry for the spoiler), which was a bit of a letdown for a monster kid like me. Still, I enjoyed the play well enough. This was the first time my creative work was acknowledged beyond a few encouraging words from teachers, and it felt good. And getting to see the play was something special that marked the occasion, something that made it more than a teacher saying, “Good job.”
I was a sophomore in high school the next time I received an award for creative work, this time for writing. I was in Mrs. Vagedes’ creative writing class, and I did another homage (which as you all know if French for rip-off). A few years earlier, I’d read a story in a horror magazine – Creepy or Eerie, most likely – about the last Christmas elf. Santa and all the other elves had died, and this elf carried on alone, flying the sleigh and delivering presents. But since this was a horror magazine, the present he delivered was killing an abusive relative for a kid. I thought the writer missed an opportunity to tell a better story, one that was about what it was like to be the last elf, struggling to carry on Santa’s legacy. So I wrote “The Last Christmas Elf.” Mrs. Vagedes liked it so much she read it aloud in class, but she didn’t say who wrote it. She didn’t want to embarrass the writer with the extra attention. She gave the author (psst, it was me) a chance to out him or herself, but I kept quiet. Partly because I was an awkward teen, but also because it was cool to see the reactions of my classmates to the story itself, without the identity of the writer (still me) influencing their response.
Thanks to Mrs. Vagedes, I was honored as The Writer of the Month for that story. I had never heard of this honor before, and I never heard of it again. Sometimes I wonder if I was Milton Union High School’s only Writer of the Month. Maybe I got a certificate. I don’t recall. That was cool, but then a reporter from a weekly newspaper called me to ask if they could publish my story along with an interview with me. This turned out to be my first publication AND my first interview. I showed up at the reporter’s house wearing a suit and tie because I had no clue how writers really dressed (hint: NOT in suits and ties). When my story and interview came out, that was the concrete part of the recognition, the Something Special that helped commemorate it.
My next writing award came when I was a junior at Wright State University in 1985. I’d submitted a story to the spring issue of Nexus, which ran a contest every year, and I won second place. My friend Pete Ficht won third, and I can’t remember who won first. The winners would receive certificates and checks (I think I won $40) at an awards ceremony at the end of the quarter. Before the ceremony, I went over to Pete’s place, and we got drunk and high. (I drank plenty in college, but this was literally the only time in my life I’ve ever smoked weed.) Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember much about the ceremony. I managed not to trip on my way to the podium or giggle like an idiot when I received my award, so I consider it a win. Next year I was the editor of Nexus, and I got to choose the contest winners along with the rest of the staff. I was sober for that ceremony. (I swear!) In this case, the $40 was the Something Special that I received.
The next writing award I won was first place in the Authorlink! 1998 New Author Awards Competition in SF/F/H category. I don’t remember how I learned about the contest, but you had to submit the first chapter of a novel. I sent what would become the first chapter of Nekropolis, and I was surprised (maybe even a bit shocked) that I won. I got a certificate and a gift voucher for a bookstore. I knew it wasn’t a “big” or “important” award, but I still framed the certificate, and it’s still on my office wall, and it’s still Something Special.
Over the next twenty years, my work received several award recommendations. In 1999, my story “Anubis Has Left the Building” was a finalist for the Darrell Award for Best MidSouth Short Story. In 2008, 2013, and 2014, I had work nominated for a Scribe Award for Best Speculative Original Novel, presented by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. And my novella The Men Upstairs was a finalist for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award in Long Fiction. This was the closest I’d come to winning a major award, and I was proud to take home the small rock token that nominees got. I had no idea what the rock represented, until my wife said, “Shirley Jackson? ‘The Lottery’?” That rock is – you guessed it – Something Special.
In 2016 I was honored to receive the Sinclair Community College 2016 Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. (Sinclair is where I’ve taught full-time for the last eighteen years.) I mention this one because my writing was a big part of why I won the award. The Horror Writers Association presented me with the 2016 Mentor of the Year Award, which – while not for my writing specifically – was still a great honor. And this year, I won a Stoker. Which for horror writers is like winning an Oscar. (I think the Shirley Jackson Awards might be horror/weird fiction’s equivalent of the Tony Awards.) So, after all these years, what have I learned about awards?
• The recognition that you’re doing good work isn’t just the most important thing – it’s the only thing that really matters.
• The Something Special is just a physical symbol – a cool physical symbol, true – of the recognition you received. It can serve as a useful reminder that at one point someone thought your work didn’t suck on those days when you’re sure your current work in progress is a steaming pile of shit.
• Awards can be useful marketing tools. From now on I’m Bram Stoker Award-Winning Author Tim Waggoner, and I’ll use this however I can and see where it takes me. I’d be a fool not to.
• A wonderful side benefit to winning an award is how many people are excited and happy for you. At least in the horror community, there a lot of good will and support.
• Sometimes you need to apply for awards, and sometimes you have to let people know your work exists. I used to think awards just happened, and sometimes they do. I did nothing to make The Men Upstairs available to the Shirley Jackson Award judges. But there was an application process for the Faculty Scholar of the Year Award, and I made sure The Winter Box was available to voting members of the Horror Writers Association. I didn’t promote The Winter Box or urge anyone to vote for it, but these days, so much is published – traditionally and indie – that there is no way in hell that any one person can keep up with it all. People need to know your work exists if they’re to have a chance to vote for it. This year, I learned that you can submit work to the World Fantasy Awards. (Although I think you can only submit one work on your own. Your publisher can submit more, I believe). You can ask your editor to submit your work to the Shirley Jackson Award judges, too. You need to make sure your work is seen. And yes, giving free work for voters’ consideration might cut into your sales – especially if you publish with a small press or are an indie writer. You’ll have to make your own choice about that. You might consult with your publisher, too. If your book just came out and you start giving away free copies, your publisher might not be happy about it.
• Don’t be an asshole. It’s rare, but in the past, I’ve had people contact me and offer to swap award recommendations. (You recommend my story, I’ll recommend yours.) I’ve had people push me to vote for their work, and I’ve had people ask me to talk about their work on social media in the hope that it’ll help generate some award interest. (I have no idea why these people think anyone gives a damn what I think.) I didn’t do any of these things because they’re wrong. Your moral mileage may vary, I suppose, but I refuse to bend on this. It’s okay to offer free copies of your work to voters or to see that your work is submitted to judges, but that’s it.
• I’ve served as a juror for the Scribe Award several times. There were only a handful of us on the jury, so our personal (and very subjective) preferences obviously came into play. From this, I learned another way to look at awards: A particular group of people decided to honor a particular work at a particular time. There ultimately is no such thing as “best” work when it comes to awards.
• Waiting to see if your name will be called is nerve-wracking, and if you are summoned to the podium, you won’t hear anyone cheering or remember anyone’s faces. You’ll be lucky to remember your name.
• Have a speech prepared ahead of time, even if you don’t think you’ll win. I don’t write speeches down (I’ve taught for thirty years, and I’m used to talking extemporaneously.) But I’ve had an award acceptance speech mentally prepared for many years. It was the anecdote about that conversation I had with Tom. So now that I’ve used that, I have to come up with another acceptance speech, should I ever be lucky enough to be nominated for another writing award.
• Beware of envy and jealousy. These destructive emotions created the Sad and Rabid Puppies in the science fiction field. (If you don’t know who they are, Google them.) I’ve heard several award presenters begin their presentation with some bitter variation of “I’ve never been nominated for the award I’m presenting, let alone won one.” They always act like they’re joking, but everyone knows they’re not. I’ve presented awards – and accepted them for friends – before winning one of the big ones myself. I know what it’s like to stand on stage and give a trophy you’ve never won to someone else. Of course, I’ve felt envious and jealous. I’m only human. But you can’t let those negative emotions fester inside you. It won’t do you or your writing any good.
• I’ve seen people lament on social media that they’re never nominated for awards, and if they are nominated, they never win. And of course people bitch about those works that did win because they’re obviously not as good as what should’ve won – namely, the bitchers’ own work. I’ve known people to get depressed because they haven’t won an award, or even if they’ve already won a shitload, that they didn’t win this time. All of these negative feelings just make it that much harder for you to write. And they can turn you into a miserable sonofabitch no one wants to be around – at least during award season – if you’re not careful. And if you can’t help feeling bitter, for Christ’s sake, don’t go on a social media rant about them. All you’ll do is damage your brand as a writer.
People hunger for validation. Some of us are practically starving for it. You want validation as a writer? Write the very best you can each time and try to improve every day. Publish your work and get paid for it. Listen to readers who enjoy your work, whose lives may even have been changed by it. All of these things are the most important types of validation for writers. Awards are just the cherry on top.
But I have to admit, that cherry tastes pretty good.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Want to check out my Bram Stoker Award-Winning novella? (See what I did there?) The limited edition hardcover of The Winter Box sold out a while ago, but the ebook version is still available. Here’s an Amazon link for your shopping convenience: