Around late July this year, I’d had enough.
I’d been reading a lot of freebie Kindle fiction up to that point, and it just wasn’t hitting the mark. I’d also submitted a piece to three different magazines and had them rejected each time, which made me wonder what I could do to make my writing better.
So I decided to go back to my roots and dive back into fantasy, first starting with The Lost Years of Merlin by T. A. Barron, and I’m glad I did that. It wasn’t a Hugo-award winner, if that’s what you’re thinking, but reading that book reminded me why I decided to become a writer in the first place: so I could write engaging, fantastic stories.
And it got me to thinking: If I want to read high-quality writing and get better, maybe I should read some Hugo winners next month.
And that’s what I did.
What is a Hugo Award?
For those who don’t know, the Hugo Awards are given annually to the best literary science fiction and fantasy works published in the previous year. The World Science Fiction Society runs them, and its members vote for the winners. A handful of the categories you can win an award in are Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Editor (Short Form), and Best Fancast (for podcasts). If you happen to be a writer, winning an award — in my opinion — is like winning an Oscar if you’re an actor. It’s a pretty big deal.
And rightfully so, some of the Hugo-award winning works I read were incredibly good. They didn’t just tell a story; they went above and beyond that by being incredibly memorable.
How does one write something memorable, you ask? Well, here’s what I found.
1. Combine the ordinary with the extraordinary.
Paraphrasing from an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast I don’t remember, the most memorable ideas tend to be the ones that combine the ordinary with the extraordinary. A teenage boy gets bitten by a spider (ordinary) and gains the superpowers that let him become “Spiderman” (extraordinary). A girl in Kansas gets swept up by a tornado (ordinary), and instead of dying, she gets placed in the magical land of Oz where she has to stop the Wicked Witch of the West before she can get herself back home (extraordinary) in The Wizard of Oz. An Egyptian prince (ordinary) discovers his true heritage and leads the Israelites out of bondage, invoking the powers of God to part the Red Sea (extraordinary) in The Prince of Egypt and every other adaptation of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. A young samurai (ordinary) gets thrown into the future by an evil wizard and must find a way back to the past (extraordinary) in Samurai Jack.
And in the same vein, the Hugo-award winning works I read had the same quality going on.
In Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer, a very sentient and self-aware AI wants to help people better their lives (extraordinary), but they’ll only do so in exchange for cat pictures (ordinary).
In The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, a mother chases after her possibly kidnapped child (ordinary), both of whom have the power to manipulate fault lines beneath the earth (extraordinary).
In Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, a young Namibian woman with exceptional math skills (ordinary) finds herself in the middle of an interstellar conflict while on her way to the university that accepted her (extraordinary).
In The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal, a 60-year-old former astronaut must decide between staying with her deteriorating husband (ordinary) or go on a mission to Mars one last time (extraordinary).
Ordinary. Extraordinary. Both, not just one. If you want to tell me a story about Harold the Butcher, show me how Harold the Butcher is different from all the other butchers you know by showing me his extraordinary qualities. If Harold the Butcher is the most extraordinary butcher you know, show me how they are ordinary or were ordinary at one point, be it their circumstances or some aspect about their personality.
In short, don’t just aim for the middle. Reach for the stars.
And prove to your readers that you know how to reach for the stars by providing the necessarily details to show that you know what you’re talking about.
2. Do the research.
One of the major differences I’ve found between stories that elicit the phrase “Meh” and those that ellicit “Wow!” are well-researched and provide relevant, vivid details that bring the story to life.
In Cat Pictures Please, the sentient AI not only alludes other AI in pop culture such as Bruce Sterling’s short story “Maneki Neko,” which depictes a “a benevolent AI” that “directs networks of individuals to do favors for each other,” but paints vivid pictures of the human experience through the characters that the AI is trying to help.
The Fifth Season doesn’t just have characters that can control the earth and make earthquakes. In it, the narrator describes the tectonic plates, calderra, and other geographical phenomenon that give a sense of realism to the story.
In Binti, the young Namibian protagonist wears red clay called ojitze in her hair as a cultural custom, and it ends up later becoming a pivotal part of the story’s conflict.
In The Lady Astronaut of Mars, the narrative takes its time depicting life in geriatric care and the emotional impact it has on one’s life, while also giving enough detail about outer space and the politics surrounding it without weighing the narrative down.
There’s a reason why “author” and “authority” share the same root word:
An author is someone who has authority.
How do you gain authority? Doing research.
How do you do research? You do it. You read. You ask interviews. You skim Wikipedia. You read primary sources and secondary sources.
And if you don’t do any of that, you won’t be an author. You’ll just be a writer that looks like they’re making a fool of themselves.
Case in point: I once wrote a story about a cook in my Advanced Fiction class, and I got called out (kindly) by my instructor, who actually did cooking and baking on a regular basis, that some of the details I provided in the story were inaccurate. At the time, I was learning to cook for myself in my college dorm, so I was inspired to write a story from these experiences. But clearly, I didn’t have enough true knowledge to be able to do the story justice, which ultimately made the story weaker and made me look like an amateur.
I’ve revised that story in the years since then, and you can bet I did my research for it, looked up recipes on how to make certain foods, looked up the consistencies of certain materials and their smells, gained a little more hands-on experience cooking, and just a little bit more knowledge that I could sprinkle into my story when I need to. And if I don’t have enough knowledge, I’ll keep researching and keep learning.
Because, as Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man / knows himself to be a fool.”
Which brings me to my penultimate point about how to write memorable works.
3. Know the rules first, then learn to be judicious about breaking them.
I imagine it’s fairly obvious that in order to win any sort of award, you have to have mastered the fundamentals at minimum. In the case of any literary awards, you have to be a pretty darn good writer and storyteller by making sure you’ve covered the basics. Your characters have to want things; your plot has to be rife with tension of some kind; your setting has to make sense; the themes you’re trying to invoke have to be prevalent and meaningful; and the style with which you write your story has to enhance the story that it’s trying to tell.
But in order to make your story “memorable,” you don’t have to “go outside the box” all the time. You can tell a perfectly traditional, 7-point story with hooks, plot turns, and pinches. You can also tell a story linearly, in 1st-person, in 2nd-person, or in 3rd. Without going into any spoilers, I found Binti and The Lady Astronaut to fit a “traditional” plot structure easily. They had hooks, plot turns, and pinches at all the points that I would expect. Cat Pictures Please has hooks and all that good stuff, too, but it’s not as easy to spot because it’s such a cerebral, inner conflict sort of story.
The Fifth Season, however, completely took me for a loop the moment I read the prologue (excerpt from this Orbit Books site):
PROLOGUE: you are here
LET’S START WITH THE END of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket—except his face, because he is afraid of the dark—and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.
What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.
And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:
He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.
But you need context. Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally.
I’ve read plenty of hooks to know what a good hook looks like, and this is one of them. At the very start of the novel, the prologue begins with a discussion of the end, and the narrator poses as someone who is both eager to tell the story, but knows that you, as the reader, might not have much time to hear it because they want to “get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
Which the narrative does. It slowly and gradually unfolds the epic from the perspective of three characters, switching between 2nd and 3rd person (with some occasional 1st person thrown in for good measure). There are some brief indications of time within each of their narratives, but for the most part, it’s up to the reader to keep reading and figure out what’s going on.
So, yeah. Not the “traditional,” sweeping epic prologue of high fantasy, and not the “reliable” narrator the genre comes to expect. The narrator is going to do what they want and when they want it, which makes you remember the story even more.
But keep in mind, though, the narrator in The Fifth Season was telling a specific story a specific way because it ended up being strongest that way. N. K. Jemisin could have told the story in a much more linear, chronological format, but trust me. If she’d done that, it would have been boring. The revelations would have been much weaker. If Cat Pictures Please were written the way The Fifth Season or Binti were written, it would be a completely different story and potentially weaker, as a result.
All four of these authors took the time to assess the best ways to tell their stories by seeing which “rules” they’d follow and which ones they could break. They were judicious about it in the same way a Dungeon Master is judicious about letting player characters act in their game.
A Parting Thought
So, we’ve discussed how — in my opinion — to make a work memorable and (possibly) more likely to win a literary award or come off as “great.” For one, it appears to require synthesizing the ordinary and the extraordinary. Secondly, it appears to require due diligence and research to make the story more vivid. Lastly, it appears to requires mastery of the basics and a working understanding of how and when to break the rules for maximum effect.
But there’s also another thing that I think great writing requires, and it relates to the writer themselves.
You see, before I started reading those Hugo-award winners, I was pretty downtrodden. I thought that these award-winning writers had something I would never acquire. I thought that, compared to them, I was an amateur that could barely string a sentence together. I thought that, to them, they had amazing ideas that made mine pale in comparison. And moreover, I thought it was impossible for me to catch-up to them.
But upon reading them, I realized that all of that was light years away from the actual truth.
I realized that the only difference between me and those award-winning fiction authors was that they did the work, and I didn’t.
The fiction they wrote was not the result of a random ritual of throwing chickens and squids in a cauldron, nor was it some once-in-a-lifetime confluence of circumstances. They cracked the code because they did the work the work it took to crack it. They might not get a Hugo Award every time they write something; nobody is perfect.
But they still do the work. They find the ideas; do the necessary research; and tell the stories they want to tell in the best ways to tell them.
They are amateurs that didn’t quit.
And I don’t intend to be one, either.
How about you?