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Writing Award Winning Fiction ~ Start With Reading It

This series was submitted by Cindy Koepp, an author and an editor. It is a 15 part series relating her thoughts from both perspectives as she read through award winning novels from her genre of choice. Many authors will tell you that to write well, you must read. Read the things that inspire, challenge, and leave you wanting. This is one author’s journey.

The Challenge

Some time back, a friend challenged me to read at least 10 of the books considered to be the best in the genre I write. The goal for this challenge was to consider how these books were written from a variety of perspectives. I might learn from them what it means to be a “good writer” of my genre. For me, that’s science fiction and fantasy, so I scared up a list of the Hugo and Nebula winners and scanned through the titles. I’d already read a few, but I needed another seven to round out the list.

At first, I made my choices based on books that sounded interesting, but as the collection grew, my ability to find the book in a paperback became more critical. At the time, my only “e-reader” was my computer, and that doesn’t fit in my locker at work.

These are the 10 books I read for the challenge.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965 Nebula, 1966 Hugo): A boy on a desert planet becomes a leader and avenges his family. I read the series when I was in high school.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1954 Hugo … retro award): Books have been banned and firemen are sent out to torch them. I read this for a science fiction literature class in college.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (2001 Hugo): Harry, a wizard-in-training at a special school, takes part in a huge tournament. This is Book 4 in the series and the last Harry Potter tale I read before I gave up on them.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969 Nebula, 1970 Hugo): A traveler on a first contact mission has to get through to one or both very xenophobic governments.

Gateway by Frederick Pohl (1977 Nebula, 1978 Hugo): Humans have found an alien race’s technology but don’t entirely understand it. They use it anyway to go exploring, which doesn’t always turn out well … for some characters.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1960 Hugo): This tale follows a young man through training and into war against bugs.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973 Nebula, 1974 Hugo): A group of humans intercept and investigate an alien craft as it zips its way through the solar system.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985 Nebula, 1986 Hugo): A genius kid is trained in military maneuvers.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970 Nebula, 1971 Hugo): Representatives of three races — including humans — go investigate an enormous, habitable ring around a star.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978 Nebula, 1979 Hugo): A healer who uses modified snake venom to treat people seeks out a special type of snake.

With those 10 books at hand, I started the challenge, but what criteria could I use to evaluate them? “I like it” or “I don’t like it” doesn’t get me very far, even if I include the ubiquitous teacher question “Why or why not?”

Then came a discussion in an online group I belong to. The topic? The Rules of Good Writing. You know, those maxims and demands issued to new writers by well-meaning others. If these Rules were as hard and fast as their reputation allowed, then these Hugos and Nebulas should echo those flawlessly, right? The Hugos and Nebulas are the best of the genre, so they should have The Rules nailed down.

Here are the article topics I used for my analysis. To round out the series to a nice, happy 15 articles, I tossed in a couple of my personal pet peeves as both a writer and an editor.

1: (this overview)
2: Show. Don’t tell
3: No flat characters
4: Keep a tight plot – every scene, every detail must advance the plot
5: Any problem started at the beginning of the book must be solved in the book
6: Avoid filter constructions
7: Watch for the sagging middle
8: Naming conventions (covers a lot of territory)
9: Stay on topic
10: Sexuality is realistic
11: ID your speakers correctly (very controversial)
12: Use profanity because it’s realistic
13: Choose a good title (following certain guidelines)
14: Fake words (somewhat controversial)
15: No accents (or use them lightly)

I originally wrote this series on my personal blog a year ago. Rather than simply parrot it here, I’m going to reflect on the discussions that resulted from my posts and see if those generate any insights.

One commenter during the blog series suggested that looking at older stories through a modern lens is not fair. Many were pioneers of concepts that are now taken for granted. I would even dare to suggest that many of the older Hugos and Nebulas would never get published by one of the big houses these days and would really struggle to get traction in a smaller house.

Is it fair to analyze old works with today’s standards? Maybe not because times have changed, and along the way, The Rules have changed, too. Nevertheless, the pal that challenged me suggested that these books, even the older ones, are classics for a reason, and perhaps they have something to teach the modern writer.

I cannot say with any degree of honesty that I liked all 10. There are at least two (Gateway and Goblet of Fire) that were wholly disagreeable. There was something to be learned about writing from all of them, though, including those two.

Dune: the value of a well-develop ecosystem
Fahrenheit 451: using fiction to challenge faults in modern society
Harry Potter: detailed character development
Left Hand of Darkness: character relationships, using non-standard societal rules
Gateway: the darker side of how people react in a bad situation
Starship Troopers: dealing with political and societal issues and duties to society
Ender’s Game: Using unconventional means to solve a problem
Ringworld: character arcs that reach beyond the person.
Dreamsnake: assumptions can be counterproductive.
Rendezvous with Rama: making sense of an alien culture from only artifacts.

Was the project worthwhile? Sure. I might even try it again with another set of criteria and 10 different books.

In the meantime, stay tuned while I review my observations and compare them to The Rules.

While we’re on this trek, I challenge you: Choose 10 of the best books in your particular genre. These are not the 10 books you like the best. If I’d used that for a criteria, I’d have picked a very different list. No, these books need to be recognized as The Greats of your genre. The major awards of science fiction and fantasy are the Hugo and the Nebula, so that’s why I went with those. What’s the major award in your genre? Pick 10 winners from there. They can be stories you’ve read already or you can read them now.

Try to figure out what makes them great. Establish a list of criteria or use the Rules of Good Writing. You may be surprised by what you find.


Cindy Koepp head shot

Cindy Koepp is originally from Michigan. She moved to Texas as a child and later received a degree in Wildlife Sciences and teaching certification in Elementary Education from rival universities. Her recently concluded adventures in education involved pursuing a master’s degree in Adult Learning with a specialization in Training and Performance Improvement. Cindy has three published science fiction and fantasy novels, a serial published online, short stories in five anthologies, and a few self-published teacher resource books. When she isn’t reading or writing, Cindy spends time whistling with a crazy African Grey. Cindy is currently an editor with PDMI Publishing and Barking Rain Press as well as an optician at monster-sized retail store.

Cindy can be found — and further enjoyed at:

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