The value of being eligible for the John W. Campbell Award

So, last night the Hugo Awards were given out, after several months of rancour and politics. All in all, I came away feeling that some very deserving and talented people took home rockets, which is what it’s all supposed to be about.

Wesley Chu won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and there was much rejoicing. Hearty congratulations to him for an award well deserved.

I’ve been thinking about the Campbell award a bit, because this was my second (and therefore final) year of eligibility. I have Thoughts on what it means to be a “new writer” in this field, especially during the current political unpleasantness.

Here’s how the Campbell works: As soon as a writer publishes a work of fiction “professionally“(there’s a definition for Campbell purposes that, for most of us, probably boils down to the first fiction for which we’re paid at least 3 cents a word), the two-year eligibility clock starts. Writers eligible for the Campbell awarded in 2015 had to have their first pro publication in 2013 or 2014.

The ticking clock can be nerve-wracking. There are many ways to begin a writing career. Some people burst out of the gate with a slew of high profile, pro-level short story publications or a popular novel series. Some writers publish a short story and then turn their attention to writing a novel for the next two years, thereby seeming to “disappear” from public view although they’re actively building their careers. Some writers have a breakthrough story and then have to wait for the next batch of short-story acceptances. Some writers don’t even know about the Campbell and find out years later their eligibility has expired.


But it can feel like a lot of pressure to be a prodigy, to be the next big thing. And the bloc voting this year and last added another layer of frustration. If a novel or a short story gets edged out of the Hugos by a politically motivated bloc vote, well, at least the writer of said story can write another story and have another chance at that award. But there are no second chances at the Campbell. You get your two years and then it’s done, no matter what politics have happened to coincide with your eligibility window.

(Full disclosure: I have no personal cause for sour grapes about the bloc voting, as I didn’t even get enough nominating votes to make the unofficial “long list” in the statistics published after the Hugo ceremony, and I did not expect to. It was incredibly meaningful to me that a few people told me they’d nominated me, and that David Steffen listed me on his post about his nominations, but I knew I wasn’t in the running.)

So, here we are two years after my first pro publication, and my Campbell window has expired. I will never be a Best New Writer.

All the same, I look back on my period of eligibility with some fondness, not as a missed opportunity or a battle lost, but as an apprenticeship. And that, I think, is the main value of the Campbell award. It puts the spotlight on writers who are just starting out.

For me, it created a sense that I was part of a cohort. It gave me an opportunity to be a part of incredible projects such as M. David Blake’s historic Campbellian anthology series, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s series of Campbellian highlights. Re-reading the blurb I wrote for Bonnie’s series, I realize that I signed with my agent during my Campbell eligibility period, and published a dozen stories in great markets. I feel pretty good about those two years.

Most importantly, for the rest of my life I will feel a kinship with the writers who came up at the same time as I did — with people like Vajra Chandrasekera, Rachael K. Jones, Usman T. Malik, JY Yang, Holly Schofield, José Iriarte, Laurel Amberdine, S. B. Divya and many others.

So here’s my unsolicited advice for any new writers just entering their Campbellian period.

Over the next months, as we move into unofficial Award Eligibility Post Period, you might be wondering: Should I mention my eligibility on Twitter? Should I blog about it? Will I be sneered at for self-promoting but oh gods what if I MISS MY WINDOW?

I know those feelings, trust me. But getting on the Campbell ballot, like so many things about the writing career, was never something any of us could control, even in the absence of concerted nomination campaigns that might knock deserving people off the list.

Be proud of your eligibility. Let people know about it if you like. Take the place you’ve earned in the spotlight, without elbowing anyone else out. Get to know your fellow Campbellians and be proud of their eligibility too. Write more. Submit and/or query more. Learn more. And if you end up on the ballot, great. But that’s not the only value that can come from this rite of passage.


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