I raise this question because this is the time of year when the Private Eye Writers of America announce the nominees for the Shamus Awards. These are given to the best novels or stories featuring a private investigator as the main character. The categories are Best Short Story, Best First Novel, Best Novel, and Best Paperback Original.
So what good are awards? For me, the answer is simple: motivation. It's because of the Shamus Awards that I write private eye stories. I had decided I wanted to write a mystery, but not sure what kind. That my first efforts featured amateur sleuths probably had more to do with my own amateurish efforts at writing than anything else. In the midst of the struggle to find my muse, I heard about the Shamus Awards and looked up the previous nominees and winners. That led to an epiphany. I recognized most of the names on the list, had read many of the books. These were the books I liked to read. Why not write that kind of book? That led to the formation of my first writing goal: winning a Shamus Award.
Why that goal? Why not a goal of landing on the New York Times Bestseller lists perhaps? Or a goal of getting an Edgar Award? Certainly those are worthy goals. Winning an Edgar, in particular, is high on my list of things to accomplish, but in aiming for the Shamus, I find it easier to identify the competition. The Edgar pool is any mystery published in the preceding year. It could be a cozy, a police procedural, amateur, detective, or any other sub genre. Competing for the Edgar is like trying to play five sports at the same time. I don’t want to take anything away from Edgar winners. It’s quite an accomplishment, but not one that is easy to aim for.
Awards set the bar. Just because the Shamus pool is smaller and more tightly defined doesn't mean that the quality of competition is any less. You’re competing against the likes of Dennis Lehane and S. J. Rozan, to name just two. I’m a firm believer that competing against the best only makes you a better writer.
The awards provide direction by helping an author identify the cutting edge of the field. The nominees, for the most part, have some quality or element that lifts them out of the pile of like novels. That’s today’s cutting edge. By the time your novel is finished readers will be looking for something different. It’s not easy to anticipate what will be fresh in the future, but knowing what’s fresh today, can tell you what won’t be fresh tomorrow.
Awards aren’t perfect at identifying the best in the field. In any list of awards there will be a few that have you scratching your head wondering why they were included. Inevitably, there will be the glaring omissions of a book or author who by every measure is deserving, but for unknown reasons did not make the list. The procedures for selecting the nominees are imperfect. If the nominees are selected by popular vote of the membership of some organization, then marketing, sales and distribution come into play. If a committee selects them, then personal preferences or biases can influence the selection. Nevertheless, the best awards can be a huge help to a writer’s craft by providing motivation, direction, and a standard to aim for.
Besides the Shamus, some other awards for mystery writers to note are the Agatha Awards given for cozy (traditional) mysteries by members of Malice Domestic, and the Thriller Awards given by the International Thriller Writers.
What awards do you aim for and why?