Apparently what makes “good enough to be worth a Hugo award” isn’t all that clear.
To be fair – or rather, reasonable, since fair is one of those things that stops having any kind of meaning outside of preschool – it’s rather difficult to come up with anything resembling objective standards for fiction. For non-fiction, yeah it’s possible, but they won’t be everything – standards like “is factually accurate” are objective, but the prose is still going to be subject to personal opinion.
That said, I can say what my standards are and what I use to decide if something is worth nomination or awarding. Oddly enough, while I was considering what my standards are, I realized that they are almost independent of whether I like the piece or not. I don’t know if this is unique to me or not, but I’ve read books that ace every one of my standards and I’ve utterly loathed them.
Of course, I do use the term “Kate-normal”, so I may be the only person in the known universe for which this is true.
So. What I look for when judging quality in narrative fiction (this mostly doesn’t apply to poetry and non-fiction and it sure as heck doesn’t apply to art) is this (in approximate order, even):
- Early immersion – I read a hell of a lot, and I find it very easy to become immersed in a piece. The earlier it drags me in, the better. If I don’t get the immersion, the interplay of the technical factors (prose quality, characterization, plotting, foreshadowing, etc.) isn’t handled well enough to do it. I’ve read pieces where I liked the premise and characters, but the craft wasn’t good enough to generate immersion. I’ve also read pieces that I hated but were well enough done to hold me despite that.
- Immersion is maintained until the last word – This is important: if something throws me out of immersion, it’s a serious technical flaw (because, yes, I’ve actually analyzed this. It could be a plot flaw that runs the piece into a bridge abutment. It could be something that breaks a character. It could also be prose so damned obtuse it sends me running for a dictionary – and I read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series without needing one.
- There is a plot – I wish I didn’t have to include this, but I’ve read a few too many novels that don’t have one. They have characters that have stuff happen to them. Note that a deliberately plotless piece can meet the grade if the characterization and prose is good enough and there is some other payoff in place of the plot.
- There are characters – Again, this should be obvious, but there are alleged novels where the alleged characters are nothing but ciphers being moved according to the author’s wishes. Again, it’s possible for a really skilled author to produce a work without any characters, but it’s bloody difficult and I’ve never seen it done well enough to justify a Hugo except in extremely short short stories.
- There is foreshadowing and it doesn’t jump up and scream “Look! I’m foreshadowing something.” – A plot twist where readers are all “WTF just happened here?” is not a plot twist, it’s bad writing. Similarly a plot twist you’ve watched approaching from chapter 3 is not a plot twist, it’s bad writing. Especially if you’re using mystery forms.
- There are no gaping plot holes. J. K. Rowling, I’m talking to you, here. The bandaid you taped over your plot hole in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was bad craft and your editor should have made you fix it. That alone was enough to throw me out of immersion in that book.
- The prose is invisible. This needs some explanation: the prose needs to be polished enough and reflective enough of the content and pacing that it helps maintain reader immersion instead of having clunky phrasing that throws a reader out of the story. The only really viable exceptions I’ve come across are in shorter works where the prose can sometimes serve as a character in itself. And Stephen Donaldson? In the Thomas Covenant books, the prose was invisible while I was reading it. If I can manage that, but your prose has me trying to parse out what the hell you meant by that sentence, then the problem lies with your prose.
- The pacing is appropriate. Appropriate is the key thing here. A gentle period-style romantic fantasy is going to have quite a different pace and rhythm than a sweeping space opera adventure. Which will be different again from a mystery. And so forth. Pacing mismatches lead to either “It’s boring” or “There’s too much going on”.
- The piece has an emotional payoff. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a happy ending, but it should have readers emotionally invested in what happens. If I finish a book and I don’t care about the ending, it failed. If I disliked the book, there’s a good chance the ending made me angry because at some level there’s a sense of “that wasn’t supposed to happen” – but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a badly written book.
So that’s the list of the things I consider go into a Hugo-worthy piece of fiction. Those of you who are more experienced with non-fiction, art, and TV/Film might like to add some suggestions of ways to judge in those categories in the comments.
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