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October, 2004 : Feature:

How the Hugo Awards Ruined My Life

In April of 2004, I received an email informing me that my novelette "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" had made the Hugo ballot in the Best Short Story category. After doing a brief Dance of Glorious Excitement, much to the consternation of my co-workers, I then noticed that the story was in the wrong category—it was a novelette, sitting on the short story ballot.

Likely some sharp-eyed fan would notice that soon.


In extremely short order, I passed through the classic stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Then I wrote an email to the Noreascon 4 Hugo Subcommittee and held my breath.

A few days later, purpling badly from lack of respiration, I got another email mentioning the Campbell Award.


More breath-holding.

The ballots hit the streets the weekend I was at Norwescon 27. Mirable dictu, thanks to the good offices of Rick Katze and the Noreascon 4 Hugo Subcommittee, I'd made both ballots in their proper places—Best Novelette and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Glorious excitement ensues.

That was pretty much all she wrote for my life.


  • One broken marriage
  • One difficult affaire de coeur
  • Lost weekend at WisCon
  • Lost weekends in Seattle
  • Novel abandoned
  • 20 pounds lost to stress diet
  • Shift in metabolism

There is a special kind of madness that overtakes a new writer on their way to their first big awards ceremony. And I mean, months before. One year you're proud because you sold a couple of stories, a couple of years later your name is everywhere you look.

Not really, of course. Not at all. But it starts to feel that way. And those familiar writer demons, the twins Doubt and Disbelief, begin to gnaw at your soul.

"It's not me."

"My friends stuffed the nominating ballot."

"Why that story?"

"I'm going to get killed in the voting."

"There was a mistake."

"Shit, I'm not going."

"Whose idea was this, anyway?"

Deep down inside, you're still proud of yourself. Justly so. But you keep waiting for someone to notice, to fetch that big Vaudeville hook, to pull you off the ballot, off the stage, off the radar.

And you know what?

That's not what happens.

Somehow I hung on. Though many of my projects screeched to a halt, or at least dropped to a very low gear, between April and September I got twenty-eight stories drafted, totaling 63,900 words in first draft. Not counting rewrites,the odd article, opinion piece, Story Word, love letter or whatnot. This is pretty close to my typical pace for short fiction, in terms of first drafts completed, though a little light on word count—there was a lot of flash written.

Stress does funny things to a writer. I eat less, want to write more, often can't focus. Award stress is the silliest kind, because that special madness is just overwhelming.

Here's the ridiculous thing: the very process of recognition can bog down what is being recognized.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, warned me about award sickness. Even while they did it, they patted me on the back, cheered me on, offered enough sage advice to fill several telephone books.

And so a nascent sense of history and an ongoing train wreck in my personal life pushed me into and through the summer months.


  • At least one competitive friendship aggressively maintained
  • Anything resembling an emotional center lost
  • Focus on fiction writing
  • Focus on any writing
  • Focus on day job

Going into Noreascon 4 was like entering free fall. One step out the hatch and Astronaut Joe is done with his part of the effort. Gravity's invisible hand does the rest.

The Hugo Subcommittee people were wonderful. Programming was wonderful. The Awards Ceremony people were wonderful. The con runners did a terrific job of making everything hospitable, helpful and friendly to a quaking newbie pro like me.

I think I was awake and doing something twenty or twenty-one hours a day. I didn't manage upward of one full meal a day. I volunteered in the SFWA suite, did events in the SFF.Net suite, hung out at the Borderlands Books table in the Dealer Room, participated in programming, attended programming, never did make the art show—a typical WorldCon experience for a newbie pro writer, except for the little matter of the Hugo Awards Ceremony.

It finally became real, gut-wrenchingly so, when I went into the hall Saturday afternoon with David Levine and a number of other nominees and actually walked up the steps and across the empty stage.

I didn't expect to win. I'd told my parents not to bother to come, not after looking over the competition on the ballots. But the bare podium under the afternoon's worklights was like Clarke's Sentinel, calling me on. I could feel the weight of science fiction history and generations of Hugo rockets pressing down on me.

I almost threw up.

And then there was the ceremony. Airless. Hot. Stuck inside my head. My friends at my side. Speeches were made. Well-earned honors conferred and awards gratefully given. Jokes, even, at which I laughed in my stress-bound way. I think my body was vibrating in whatever key the Universe is tuned to.

When Dr. Schmidt got up to read the Campbell nominees, my name was still on the list. No last-minute reprieves or executions. David Levine was seated right in front of me, so I reached forward and gripped his shoulder. (We live one zip code apart, that magnificent writer and I, and were the only double Campbell-Hugo nominees this year, so we have a lot in common to separate us.)

When Dr. Schmidt opened the envelope, I was in hard vacuum.

When Dr. Schmidt read my all stopped for me.


  • A fine plaque on my wall
  • Magnificent friendships forged or strengthened
  • A renewed sense of purpose
  • A very, very tired writer

The rest, as they say, is history. I received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The Hugo for Best Novelette went, most deservedly, to Michael Swanwick. As an added bonus for me, Frank Wu won the Hugo Best Fan Artist, putting forever a seal of some kind of approval on our joint collection, Greetings From Lake Wu . The partying went on for days, the post-Con recovery went on for weeks.

Here's the thing; what I learned from all this madness:

If you're going to write, write. Keep writing. You can't ignore the good things that come any more than you ignore the bad—and sometimes they cannot be distinguished—but you can keep them from stopping you. Awards are madness, a necessary infection that informs the readership, inspires the fans and recognizes the writers.

Great Ghu grant that I never have such a weekend again.

Great Ghu grant that I ever have such a weekend again.

Meanwhile, I write.

Copyright © 2004, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Sep 27, 21:14 by John Frost
Discussion of Jay Lake's article.

(For the article itself: click here.)
Sep 28, 06:27 by Ken Scholes
Heartful congrats, Jay, and an excellent article!
Sep 28, 08:14 by shawn scarber
Excellent article, felt I was right there with you. Congratulations.
Sep 28, 11:04 by Jerry Robinette
As Wilde would say (in a Monty Python skit) "The only thing worse than being a finalist for two major awards in the same year early in your career is NOT being a finalist for two major awards in the same year early in your career!" It may have been a strange trip, but you earned it, and you'll find a way to integrate it into your life. What the Heck, take some time, celebrate (then then get back to work ....)

Sep 28, 16:01 by Lou Antonelli
Stop it, Jay, you're scaring me!

Actually, a really interesting article.

Another typical good writing job.
Oct 28, 07:36 by John O'Neill
Hi Jay,

Terrific article. Congrats on the award, of course. It's well deserved -- not just for the quality of the work, but because of the energy you bring to the field. You're not just talented, you're hard working, and it really shows.

Very sorry to see that the tally included "one broken marriage," though. You didn't touch on that in the article, for good reasons I'm sure. It must have been very hard. You have my sympathies.

Next time we run into each other at a con, I'll buy you lunch. Keep me posted.

- John

John O'Neill
Black Gate

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