Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Bit About Awards

@jamesscottbell



In 1996 I was offered a five-book contract by the Christian publisher Broadman & Holman.  
I had proposed bringing the legal thriller genre to the inspirational market, which was starting to explode in the fiction category.

The contract was generous for an unknown scribe, though I did happen to be a slightly-known lawyer. I was the publisher of a legal digest on California search and seizure law (still am, in fact) and in that capacity had made an appearance on national TV during the O. J. Simpson preliminary hearing in 1994. That's not really something to boast about, as just about every criminal lawyer in America made some sort of TV appearance during the Simpson trial. (It did turn out that the judge in the prelim relied on a case the lawyers missed, and may have found said case in my digest. Always happy to help a judge).

Back to the novels for B&H. The second book I did for them was Final Witness. Now, through the wonder of digital publishing, I am able to bring it back into circulation.



A cold-blooded killer is destroying all who oppose him. Will there be a final witness to the truth?

Young, idealistic law clerk Rachel Ybarra has just been handed a career-making opportunity––helping in the prosecution of an infamous leader of the Russian Mafia. But when the star witness turns up dead, Rachel discovers the case is not merely a battle for the truth––it's a battle for her life.

The book is available until Friday for a special launch price of $2.99. You can find it on:





At the time I started researching Final Witness I had a law school classmate who worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in downtown L.A. He provided me access to the office and his fellow lawyers, and technical assistance on the nuances of federal prosecutions. The result was a book I remain quite proud of.

After it came out, and completely unbeknownst to me, a new award came along specifically for Christian fiction. The Christy Award (named after Catherine Marshall's famous novel), had several categories. I got a call from my editor one day to tell me that Final Witness was a finalist in Suspense.

There was a big banquet at the Christian Booksellers Association convention in 2000. Final Witness took home the prize, for which I've always been grateful. But that's only part of the story.

Awards are nice to win, we all know that. It's not so nice to lose, even though you're a finalist. You may strain to be happy that you've been nominated, but the tight smiles at the Academy Awards each year show just how tough that is to pull off in real life. 

The next year, my follow-up novel, Blind Justice, was also a Christy finalist. This time I didn't win. And I was a fool for getting so wrapped up in the contest. I could excuse that by saying, "Well, we're all human, even recovering lawyers." 

But then I hearken to what Kate Hepburn says to Bogart in The African Queen: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." That includes human nature. We show it in all its contradictions in our fiction. But as people in this world we need to learn to keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs (thank you, Mr. Kipling).

So don't put too much stock in awards, accolades, lists, recognitions. Enjoy them if they come, but don't stand at the window, nose pressed, lusting after one. You won't get much sleep that way. And your writing will probably suffer.

The best antidote for awards anxiety is this: go deeper into your work-in-progress. Get involved in your characters' lives. Give them the attention. Put them through the emotional trauma. Do that and you just may get the kudos that really matter—from readers.   

So what are your thoughts on awards in the arts? 


19 comments:

  1. At the very beginning of my 30-year career as a professional musician, Jim, I received a great piece of advice from an old veteran. He told me, "Never believe the applause."

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  2. A wise, balanced approach, Mike. Similar to "Don't believe your press releases." Enjoy the moment, say, "Thank you," but then back to work.

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    1. "Enjoy the moment. Say 'Thank you.' Get back to work." I think that sums it up nicely, Jim. Appreciate awards and be gracious if you win, but don't put too much stock in them.

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  3. Jim, wise words. We've all heard it said: "It's an honor just to be nominated." I guess it is, but when we're nominated our mind immediately jumps to the next level, and we want to win it. Better (but difficult) to echo the words of TV's John Becker, the curmudgeon doctor (with whom I identify): No expectations...no disappointments. Write on.

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    1. That deal about expectations is the right prescription, in all areas of life. Yes, goals and perhaps a dream or two, but if you put one outcome in your mind it'll drive you bugs if you don't get it. Present moment thinking and writing. As Sir William Ostler said, "Live in day-tight compartments."

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  4. A new thriller on my Kindle, yay!

    For this noobish, winning gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get up the mountain, of course, just to find myself at the foot of another mountain. But I had needed just that touch of validation.

    However, a recent kerfuffle and banquet of butthurt on FB when the list for a major award was announced (resulting in a flurry of angry posts, blogs, and unfriendings,) is the stern reminder of the dark side of it.

    Take the good, congratulate the winner, and eat your peas at the banquet, while looking up the next mountain.

    Terri

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    1. Nicely put, Terri. "Dark side" indeed. No time for that.

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  5. Excellent sentiments. It seems to me that people are fickle (including those giving out the awards.) What (or who) they might like this year they may not be the same even two months later. So, it's best to do as you say. Acknowledge it, enjoy it for what it is, and then get back to work. To me, that goes for positive reviews, too. It's good someone liked the story, but that doesn't mean you've hit your stride and are all that. It just means someone enjoyed the story.

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  6. Ha! As I was reading your post, I have "All About Eve" on in the background. Eve just got her award and Margo says, "Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."

    Yes, it's not a good idea to keep your eye on the prize. Or to bitch and moan about the Edgar nominees or insert award here nominees. In the grand scheme of things, awards are nice and they can get you the notice of an agent, editor, Hollywood, reviewers and yes, readers. But they guarantee nothing because you have to look at this writing thing as a very long journey. If you go back in the MWA archives and look at the list of Edgar winners for Best First Novel, for example, you will see more names you never heard from again than those who went on to have careers of any length and depth. I don't say that to be catty; it's just a caution. An award is like a great review -- it can boost you but it can't sustain you.

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    1. Oh yes. All About Eve! One of the great movies. I also love Addison DeWitt talking to Eve's young assistant at the end, right after Eve has won the Sarah Siddons Award. He asks her if she would like to win one of those. She bats her eyes at him and says, "More than anything in the world."

      And DeWitt says, "Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. She knows all about it."

      Chillingly and hauntingly grand.

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  7. James, I won a contest a few years ago, and it definitely gave me much needed confidence.

    I just downloaded Final Witness! Hey, I re-read your book Plot & Structure before I draft each new novel. I think you used Final Witness for examples, didn't you? *back from checking the index* I guess not! Still, I'm excited to read your book :)

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Julie. Happy to be along for the journey!

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  8. Just tried to buy Final Witness only to be told I'd already purchased it. Very good advice about awards. And you're right. If we get caught up in the award thingy, we quit enjoying the journey.

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    1. Well, you can never have too many copies of Final Witness....

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  9. Since I've been published I've had fun entering contests knowing that is one way to get my work in front of others. And I've loved winning and finaling in contests and I get bummed when I don't for about half an hour. Winning or finaling gives me that confidence boost I need at just the right time. :) But none of that goes to my head, it just helps to push me along when I start thinking, "why did I ever think I could write?" :)

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  10. The various award ceremonies (for everything under the sun) on TV are just hysterical. The winners, so shocked and devastated they can't hardly speak, blubber about in faux bewilderment. You'd think they just discovered the cure for insomnia, all the accolades.

    Makes for good entertainment, if you've got nothing better to do. Unless, of course, it's ME getting the award. Then, it's ohhh-baby! We're on a roll tonight!

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  11. Some awards stuff gets so ridiculous I think it's puts it all in perspective. Focusing on the 'art' is much more satisfying (and fun) - at least some of that is within your control:)

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  12. For us unpublished authors, contest entries that come back with critiques can be a painful kick in the butt. But we get it back in the chair the next day with greater insight into what work remains. And sometimes we get a nice little certificate, albeit with our name misspelled by an overworked volunteer.

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  13. Agreed. We shouldn't be chasing awards. But I also think we shouldn't chase readers. What I mean is, we shouldn't chase them by writing the book we think THEY want to read or to try and be trendy or ride the coattails of the latest craze. We should write the book WE want to write, and I think if we do, and put in our best effort, the rest will come. :) Great post, as always!

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